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LREC seminar warns area producers to avoid soil compaction

The North Dakota State University (NDSU) Langdon Research Extension Center (LREC) hosted a seminar for area producers to learn valuable information on what they can do prepare for and expect from their fields next spring and possible crop yields.

Posted 12/24/2016

By Melissa Anderson
The seminar was held as a result of record breaking precipitation that occurred over 2016 that will make spring planting especially difficult. According to data that has been collected by the weather station at LREC, 2016 was a record breaking year for precipitation, receiving 29.81 inches of precipitation by the end of November with the entire month of December still left to calculate and add. The previous record was 28.05 inches which occurred in 1954.
This incredible amount of moisture has left the ground and soils thoroughly saturated which made fall harvest incredibly difficult. The 2016-2017 winter is also slated to have above average precipitation, leaving some to wonder what they will do in the spring when the ground thaws and all the moisture has no place to go.
Naeem Kalwar, the soil health specialist at the LREC, addressed the audience on what they can expect from the soil in their saturated fields in the spring.
“Saturated soils will result in runoff/loss of top soil, very limited availability of oxygen, shallow groundwater levels and vertical/horizontal capillary water movement,” Kalwar explained.
“This will result in a poor growth environment for microbes and plants,” Kalwar added.
With all of these issues just from having too much precipitation, producers were made aware of what can make a bad situation even worse if they were to go out into their fields in their attempt to till the soil. When producers cultivate wet fields, but they not only risk getting their equipment stuck, they also risk compacting their soils.
“Soil compaction reduces the number and size of pores in the soils. Soils will have low oxygen, be difficult to till, root growth is restricted, soil drainage is restricted, and there is an accumulation of excessive salts and sodium,” Kalwar explained.
Fellow presenter Aaron Daigh, an assistant professor of soil physics at NDSU elaborated on the impact and lasting damage that soil compaction can have on producers’ crop yields.
“You cannot judge compaction based on the surface as compaction can go very deep,” Daigh said.
Daigh discussed studies on compaction that have been done in Finland, with heavy clay soils, and a study in Minnesota that spanned several locations. The results of those studies showed that ruts can cause compaction that impacts soil health for almost 30 years.
“Even a one time event of soil compaction can have lasting effects on soil pores,” Daigh said.
According to Daigh, compaction of topsoil can be healed and rectified in about five years, but compaction that occurs at the subsoil level can take twice as long.
“Waiting for drier fields, putting wider tires on, and reducing air pressure can help to reduce the risk of compaction,” Daigh said.
For those producers who couldn’t wait and created ruts in their fields, Daigh does have some tips on how to eliminate them. Daigh recommends leveling the ruts by only going as deep as the rut itself.
“If you till into wet soil to eliminate the ruts you will only cause more compaction,” Daigh said.
Recommended equipment to use are a disc, cultivator, or vertical till or other typical secondary tillage for ruts less than four inches deep.
“Use a chisel plow for ruts that are deeper,” Daigh advised.
For areas where there are no ruts, minimal to no tillage is advised as the moisture will still be within the soil when producers head to the fields in the spring.
“The best thing producers can do is wait, and let their fields dry out,” Daigh said.
Daigh explained what producers can expect from the areas were there are ruts. Studies have shown that areas with ruts/compaction will result in significantly reduced yields. No matter what the producer did to attempt correcting the ruts.
“Yields where compaction occurred will be reflective,” Daigh said.
Dr. John Nowatski, an agricultural machines specialist at NDSU, discussed the best machinery to use when soils are saturated but noted that if the soil is too wet to till, it is also too wet to plant.
Craig Brumbaugh and Brenyn Hardy discussed the effectiveness of cover crops that can be used to help reduce the amount of moisture in saturated soils. These same cover crops that were discussed can also be utilized in soils that have high salts and salinity.
Brumbaugh and Hardy’s presentation centered on the issues that producers may run into should the soil in their fields remain overly saturated. The drowned out crops may produce barren areas that reduce the normal downward movement of water and salts.
“This excess moisture  with reduced vegetation has enabled extreme lateral movement of water and salts into otherwise productive cropland,” the two stated in their presentation.
Improving overall soil health will help the water logged soils revert back to productivity. The recommendations that Brumbaugh and Hardy put forward were to keep a living root during most of the growing season, reduce tillage on the soil, improve crop diversity and armor the soil surface with residue to reduce erosion.
Using cover crops such as a turnip/radish/oat mix that has a deep, living roots will utilize the excess moisture in the soils, reduce the lateral movement of water and salts on to adjacent cropland and will increase overall crop productivity.
The two presenters discussed cover mixes that can be utilized on preventive plant ground.  Brumbaugh and Hardy work with the USDA Farm Service Agency for certification of grass and cover crops.
Julie Howatt, Executive Director of the Cavalier County FSA office, presented on what lands would and would not qualify for Prevent Plant should the producers find next spring that they are unable to get their crop into the ground because of the record breaking moisture that was received.
For more information on the presentations or the presenters, please contact Cavalier County Extension Agent Anitha Chirumamilla at 701-256-2560.