6 Ways to Reduce Soil Compaction

“Our Soil, Our Strength” is engraved on the entrance to Hammer and Kavazanjian Farms, where Charlie Hammer farms with his wife, Nancy Kavazanjian, in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin.

“We are seeing higher yields from the soil quality that we are getting with our whole management system,” he says, which includes controlled traffic and strip-till in his corn and soybean rotation. Hammer also grows wheat on a portion of his acres and is experimenting with cover crops.

Hammer is the first to admit that this style of farming demands extra management. He jokes he’s getting too old for his operation. Yet, he stays at it because he realizes the importance of soil health. “We are really proud of our soil and how we are treating it,” he adds.

Hammer’s systems approach to creating healthy soil is successful because it eliminates many techniques that damage soil structure and, instead, incorporates positive practices. Soil structure is essential for growing crops. It determines the soil’s ability to hold water, nutrients, and air and the soil’s capacity for infiltration. Both are necessary for root activity.

“Soil structure is also the number one defense against soil compaction,” says Jodi DeJong-Hughes, an Extension educator at the University of Minnesota.

There have been countless studies on the effect of soil compaction on yield. Yet, it is a difficult number to estimate because fields vary greatly in soil types, crop rotations, and weather conditions. Randall Reeder, a retired Extension ag engineer from Ohio State University, has done research on soil compaction for more than 30 years.

Reeder conservatively estimates that most farmers can expect a 5% to 10% yield loss from compaction. However, research has shown that the yield loss can be as great as 55%. (Source: Ward Vorhees, USDA ARS, 2000)

“Farmers look at that number and say they can’t give up their big grain cart or combine, so they’ll just accept the yield loss,” says Reeder. “You don’t have to, though. If you have the option to go to controlled traffic, the system would pay off with a 5% yield improvement by getting rid of compaction.”

Controlled traffic isn’t the only way to reduce compaction. Following are six ways you can build healthy soils by maintaining soil structure and reducing compaction.

  1. Cut Back Tillage
  2. Control Traffic
  3. Reduce Axle Loads, Psi
  4. Avoid Traffic on Wet Fields
  5. Add Diversity to Your Rotation
  6. Consider Subsoiling

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