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Mind your soils once the planter rolls

Jeff Caldwell 04/22/2013 @ 3:35pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Though it may not seem like it now, you will eventually be able to plant corn this spring. At the rate things are going, however, chances are better than average that it'll be a little soggy. Just don't forget that's the case when you do get rolling: You'll be facing some conditions you'll want to manage as you're rolling through the field.

Depending on your location, you could be facing some major issues with erosion and compaction, not just because of the rainfall itself, but because of the amount that fell all at once and the length of time it stuck around on the soil's surface, according to Iowa State University Extension agronomist Mahdi Al-Kaisi. With the former, you're likely in the biggest trouble if you got a lot of "intensive fall tillage" done before winter.

"The destruction of soil structure during tillage operations reduced water infiltration causing the surface soil to seal and resulting in great amounts of surface runoff and sediment losses to rivers and streams. The lack of residue cover on the soil surface is a main factor in accelerating soil erosion," Al-Kaisi says. "The reduction in water infiltration of intensively tilled soils means that they may not benefit greatly in terms of subsoil recharge because the majority of the water runs off the soil surface into streams and ditches. In contrast, no-till fields with good residue cover or fields with cover crop will experience much better water penetration and recharge to the soil profile."

How much erosion's happening in your fields -- regardless of the level of tillage performed -- depends a lot on how you handled the residue specifically, as well as any other surface materials or structures that can help keep the water from running off. The longer the water's there, the more it can be of use.

"The efficiency of a tillage system in capturing rain and storing it in subsoil is highly affected by residue cover level, the way residues were managed (shredded or intact), and the existence of waterways and buffer strips that slow water movement and provide more opportunity for water to penetrate into the soil profile," Al-Kaisi says.

Erosion's typically the soil condition that's most obvious and evident when you hit the field to plant. How much compaction you'll wind up with is an entirely different story. You've got to run before you can create compaction. How and when you run goes a long way in determining how much damage you'll inflict.

"Wet soil condition presents a challenge with field operations such as applying fertilizers, planting, and other daily farm management operations. Avoid entering fields when soil moisture is at or above field capacity, when the greatest soil surface compaction or sidewall compaction can occur. Soil compactions occurring during planting causes root deformation and subsequently yield reduction," says Al-Kaisi. "It is worth waiting until field condition is dry enough by monitoring the top 6 inches of soil moisture by performing field moisture tests. Other problems associated with soil compaction are the potential of early nutrient deficiencies such as potassium (K) during early growth stages when compaction affects root growth."

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