Soil compaction can occur at the soil surface and at the sub-soil level. Normally surface compaction becomes a concern at seeding in the spring. However, subsoil compaction can have multi-year-long impacts on our crops. Subsoil compaction can be the result of the forming of a hardpan, caused by tillage implements, or by deep compaction usually from heavy equipment under wet soil conditions (Figure 1). The natural events that reduce surface compaction, are not usually significant in subsoil compaction. Wetting and drying, freeze and thawing, and biological activity are reduced at lower levels in the soil profile.
To help avoid compaction, avoid tillage when soils are wet and maintain traffic with wheel loads lower than the carrying capacity of the subsoil. In addition, axle load should be reduced, tires should be of proper size and inflation, and nutrients band-applied to maximize availability. Inflating tires to the proper air pressure can help reduce surface compaction, while reducing axle loads can help reduce depth of compaction. This is extremely important as the consequences of subsoil compaction can last many years.
The use of defined wheel pattern traffic is an important tool in minimizing subsoil compaction across a field. For example, the grain cart driver should try to drive on the same path back to the truck as much as possible. This is important because most soil compaction is made on the first trip over the field.
If possible, reduce the number of trips across a field. This isn’t the most practical; however, if there are opportunities to use the road or avoid a trip, it will help. Incorporating crops in the rotation with different rooting types and depths may help clear some compaction layers.
By no surprise, soil quality can also aid in soil structure. Increasing soil organic matter can help soil aggregates build and reduce the effects of larger equipment. Soil aggregates give soil its structure and provides space for water and air within the pores. This is a key component to long term prevention of soil compaction. Improving soil structure is the best defense against soil compaction as a well-structured soil holds and conducts the water, nutrients, and air necessary for healthy plant root activity.
Overall, soil compaction cannot be avoided entirely; however, it can be limited with good management.
Light, S. 2018. Strategies to avoid and manage soil compaction. Sacramento Valley Field Crops. Agriculture and Natural Resources. University of California. https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=27421.
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