The Science of Soil Health: Compaction

You know the plow seems to be symbolic
of that can-do spirit that you find in American farmers and so when you say that there may be
better alternatives to tillage for compaction relief, that seems somehow counter-intuitive and almost
un-American I met two guys from Ohio State who
use science to put conventional wisdom on its head.
“Were trying to tell farmers that you cannot solve your problems with
steel you know steel is shiny you can put your hand on it you
can spend a lot of money on steel and even with the subsoiler that may
have minimal surface disturbance it’s really not solving the problem. You
know we’re seeing that soil structure can be better
solved by using natural rooting systems through our cover crops or
continuous no-till from the cropping systems. We have some other experiments here that
are proving that. We have some compaction plots comparing subsoil – steel versus living cover crops… We’re
purposely compacting these plots in the fall under moist soil conditions by using a
grain cart in going back and forth over the plots
and forcing their compaction and then the cover crops are planted and
we’re comparing that to using a subsoiler and our yields are showing better
results with the cover crops. And of course when you get some heavy rains you can see standing water
problems you know that show up between the
compaction levels with the plots also that way And the cover crops are out doing the
steel.” So what’s the explanation for these rather surprising results? When you look at soil, you have to
look at the components and the the major component most soil is sand, silt and clay, now that makes up
about 45 percent a really good soil. The other part of the
soil what we tend to forget about as it should be pore-space. Almost 50 percent
of a really good soil is pore-space, but then the most important
part the soil is organic matter. That’s like your head
and your brains that controls most chemical reactions and most the life is with that organic
matter. You know when you when you start to till
a soil what you do is you burn up the organic matter so in the
last 100 to 150 years through tillage we’ve lost probably at least sixty
percent of our orgnic matter – some studies say as much as 80 percent the organic matter is going
right up in the atmosphere and this is a good area because this was a Black Swamp in in Northwest Ohio when the first
settlers came here they said our soil was as black as midnight and when you look at the soil now, you’ll
see that it’s not as black it actually kind of a brown- it’s
lost its color so it’s lost a lot of its organic matter. I like to tell farmers that the a lot of times when you till the soil you
turn it into cement mix OK, so the soil gets very hard and dense and one of the things that we’ve learned
is that if I was going to drill into cement I would start with the small drill and
then use a bigger drill to go through it and so that’s what we do with the cover
crops the cover crops actually have very fine
roots and they form a small hole and then we follow
that with corn and soybeans and and those corn and soybeans will
follow those same channels down through the soil and and they also follow earthworm holes
because earthworms are fairly big in there also enriched with nutrients and so those
roots just really proliferate around those earthworm holes and that’s
how we then can actually loosen the soil
because it’s the roots that loosen the soil and give
that carbon to the soil and also is a storehouse for all the
nutrients and the water. So a lot innovation is happening is
really an exciting time because farmers are seeing that he there’s
different ways we can improve our soils by adding cover crops,
by not going to steel, by reducing your tillage – a lot of good innovative
thinking I think is happening

Daniel Yohans

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