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Corn Illustrated: There are ways to soften the blow of soil compaction but no easy answers.

Tom J Bechman 1, Editor, Indiana Prairie Farmer

December 11, 2018

3 Min Read
ruts in mud in cornfield
PRESS REWIND? Unfortunately, there is no rewind button once you have ruts in a field — no way to erase the effects immediately, Purdue Extension’s Gary Steinhardt says. ligora/Getty Images

Harvesting corn or soybeans when you would have rather left the combine in the shed was a fact of life for many late in 2018. The only choice was to get crops out.

Gary Steinhardt knows it’s tough on wet soils, but he knows it’s a cost of doing business. The alternative was risking increased harvest losses and deterioration in crop quality.

Steinhardt, a Purdue University Extension soil scientist, was a pioneer who brought potential impacts of soil compaction to light in the 1980s.

Here are frequently asked questions after a fall like 2018 and Steinhardt answers:

If I see more tracks than ruts, can I ignore them? No, it won’t just go away. The impact of soil compaction can persist for several seasons. It may not show up every year in every situation, but given the right weather conditions, it will show up.

What can I do about tracks or ruts? Can you go to soybeans in 2019? Soil compaction will still be there, but soybeans have an incredible ability to hang on when conditions aren’t ideal and still produce good yields.

We conducted research many years ago where we compacted soils on purpose. We would almost always find a yield impact on corn growing on compacted soils. However, we usually didn’t see a reduction in soybean yields.

Does that mean soybeans won’t be affected next season in fields rutted this fall? Their growth may be affected during the growing season, depending upon weather patterns. They may look a bit rough. But when the combine runs, odds are you won’t find a yield difference.

What else can I do to repair damage in these fields? If you can go to soybeans, then follow in the fall of 2019 with a cover crop. With the expertise available in growing cover crops today and the benefits which people have demonstrated, cover crops can be useful in helping rebuild soil health.

What do I do with deep ruts so I can plant in the spring? Wait until the soil is as dry as possible. Work out rutted areas with a disk or field cultivator — some sort of secondary tillage tool. Your goal should be doing just enough light tillage so that your planter can work effectively.

Should I consider deep tillage next spring to break up compacted areas? Absolutely not! Deep tillage is chancy at best, even in dry soils. It takes a lot of power and fuel, and results are often inconclusive. Soils are most likely to be wet in the spring. You need to check about 3 inches down, not just on the surface. If soils are wet, you’re just moving soil around. You may do more harm than good.

Will freeze-and-thaw cycles solve my problem? Freezing and thawing as a solution is overrated. In central Indiana, it takes an average of five years for this process to have a significant impact. It may work a bit faster to the north and slower to the south. If compacted clods don’t have water inside, you won’t get freeze-thaw action. This process will help over time, but it’s not the panacea many people believe it is.

About the Author(s)

Tom J Bechman 1

Editor, Indiana Prairie Farmer

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