Concerned about soil compaction? Stick a shovel in it!

The recent wet spring has growers concerned about soil compaction. Here’s an easy method to tell if your soil is compacted and how to correct it.

For Mid-Michigan, the spring of 2013 was long and wet. Precipitation in a band stretching from Lake Michigan through the Thumb, saturated soils across central Michigan for much of the planting season and this trend has continued well into June. As a result, fields may have had work done before soil conditions were right. This has many farmers concerned about soil compaction in those fields.

Soil compaction occurs when equipment is driven on soils that are too wet. While it is more common in fine-textured soils, it can also occur in coarse-textured soils. Soil compaction will decrease root penetration of that soil, reduce the air and water holding capacity and decrease the ability for water to move through the compacted layer. All of these factors can impact a plant’s ability to thrive. The impact of soil compaction can be felt for years and can rob as much as 10 to 20 percent of yield if not corrected.

An easy way to see if a soil is compacted is to stick a shovel in it, or a soil probe, a tile rod or even a penetrometer. With moist soil conditions, the instrument will move through the soil profile until it reaches the compaction layer. This layer may be at 3 inches, 7 inches or deeper. It may correlate with depth of a tillage operation or tire traffic.

Soil compaction can impact the entire field, or it may be present only in a localized area. The important point is to locate the areas where compaction has occurred and determine the depth of the compaction layer.

The good news is soil compaction can be corrected. Producers can chisel plow or subsoil affected areas to break up the compacted layer. Studies have shown that tilling 2 inches below the compacted layer is affective in breaking up the hard-pan. Going deeper does not provide additional benefit.

Carry a shovel and observe crop growth, and when there is concern, stick a shovel in it. This is an easy way to diagnose a problem that could linger for years if not corrected.

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