Soil compaction is an issue that affects farmers across the country and can reduce yield potential by 10 – 20 percent, if not properly managed. This event occurs when axle loads applied to the ground press soil particles together, reducing pore space and increasing bulk density. As a result, heavily compacted soils have reduced water infiltration rates and poor drainage, along with a much lower capacity to supply adequate amounts of water and nutrients to crops.
As farm machinery continues increasing in size to cover more acres and be more productive, farmers must come up with solutions to reduce soil compaction while maintaining efficiency on their operation. Any piece of equipment that comes in contact with your field can cause soil compaction and damage to the soil’s structure. It is important to think holistically about your entire fleet and minimize unnecessary traffic across the field.
Wet soils are particularly susceptible to compaction. One of the most important factors for decreasing soil compaction potential is to stay off the soil when it’s wet. However, since farmers sometimes need to be in the field in less-than-ideal conditions, minimizing or controlling compaction is the next best management option.
Here are three ways to manage soil compaction:
Controlled traffic: Be strategic about where you are driving in the field. It is estimated that 70 – 80 percent of compaction occurs on the first pass. Restricting traffic to designated and continuous lanes will keep compaction localized to a smaller portion of the field. Utilize GPS to optimize field traffic for the entire fleet. Try using the same guidance lines and matched working widths to keep all operations on the same wheel tracks.
Reduce axle loads: Farm equipment with high axle loads (>10 tons per axle) will cause deep soil compaction down to 2 – 3 feet deep in some instances. Deep soil compaction will persist for decades and is difficult to fix with tillage or cover crops. Therefore, reducing axle loads to less than 10 tons will help keep the compaction within the top 6 – 10 inches where it is still manageable.
Reduce tire pressure: Lowering tire pressure will increase the “footprint” of the tire, which in turn reduces the contact pressure applied to the soil. As a result, reducing tire pressure will help lower the intensity of topsoil compaction where roots are mostly growing. Check with your tire dealers and manufacturers to confirm proper tire pressure. There are products out there to manage tire pressure and even tractors and planters that can be ordered directly from the factory with a tire inflation system.
Healthy soil is an important resource when growing a profitable crop. Preventing soil compaction is a necessity for promoting strong and healthy root growth in order to maximize yield potential. Controlling traffic, managing axle load, lowering tire pressure and choosing the right equipment for your land can help manage problems with soil compaction.
By: Jason Lee, PhD, Agronomy and Farm Solutions Specialist, Global Product Management at AGCO Corporation