Prevent soil compaction, practice patience

Think twice before driving into wet fields, soil compaction could rob yields as much as or more than late planting.

This spring season has been good for one thing: rain. The high rainfall volumes throughout Michigan have saturated our soils keeping producers out of the field and pushing planting dates later and later. While earlier planting dates correlate with higher yields, entering into fields while they are too wet can result in soil compaction damage that could reduce yields even further. For best results this season, practice that virtue called patience in the coming days.

Soil compaction happens most readily in fine textured soils or when your soils are at or near field capacity.  These conditions often correlate to the first day a tractor can work in a field without getting stuck. When soil becomes compacted it reduces the amount of pore space in your soil, destroys soil structure, and increases the bulk density. This results in soils with reduced root, air, and water infiltration causing stunted root growth and ponding within fields. Additionally, reduced pore space lowers the capacity of your soil to hold water and air and lowers the availability and accessibility of nutrients to plant roots. 

The changes to your soil caused by soil compaction have a large effect on plant growth, development, and ultimately yield. Studies have shown that in less than optimal growing conditions, compacted soils produce yields 10 to 20 percent lower than on un-compacted soils. Should optimal growing conditions exist in a year, adequate moisture, fertility, and management can overcome or mask compaction losses. The question to ask is: How often do we have optimal growing conditions?

The best plan of action to prevent soil compaction is simple: don’t drive on your fields when the soil is too wet. A simple method to determine your ground’s moisture level is the “ball test.” Pick up a handful of soil and form a ball. If the ball holds its form without breaking apart, your ground is too wet for traffic. Additionally, the majority of compaction happens within the first one or two passes, thus reusing the same wheel tracks within a field is a good way to minimize compaction. Finally, remember that spreading the weight of your equipment over a larger surface area reduces pressure on the soil. When possible use larger diameter wheel rims and larger tires to help spread the weight out.

Planting date plays a large role in yield production and ultimately profitability. However, don’t let impatience put you in the field a day too early, compacting your soils and reducing your yields even more.

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