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Is soil compaction affecting your yield potential?

If farmers want to continue to increase yields, they may need to pay more attention to the condition of the soil, says an agronomist

We’re subsoiling soils all over this planet. People have been doing it for tens and tens of years, successfully,” said Elston Solberg, senior agri coach and president of Agri-Trend Agrology, during a field day near Liberty, Saskatchewan. “It’s going to be a big part of agriculture in Western Canada as sure as I’m standing here. Because in every field we walk on, at least 80 per cent has at least two compaction layers that are man made, and they might even have one or two that God made.”

Although soil compaction is something many in agriculture here in the west still aren’t convinced exists to any great degree, Solberg said in his work across the prairie he has found there really is a problem, and it is very widespread and significant enough to limit yields. Most western farmers will need to address compaction sooner or later, he believes.

As many farmers attending the field day walked through the stubble field where a variety of deep rippers, strip-till and minimum tillage implements were awaiting their turn at demonstration runs, a few took the time to poke around the field to look for any compaction with one of the penetrometers provided by Tri Star Farm Services of Emerald Park, Saskatchewan, the dealership that organized the event. The results surprised many. There were areas of very high density across a field that had just grown an impressive wheat crop.

More from the Grainews website: What to look for in a deep ripper

“It’s tough to convince farmers who are getting the best yields they’ve ever had that there’s a problem,” explained Kellen Huber, owner of Tri Star. “But we’re finding compaction everywhere.”

Huber’s short-line dealership retails a variety of tillage implements, so he does stand to gain from increased sales if producers start buying deep rippers. But he and Solberg are among a growing number in the industry who are seriously looking at compaction as a significant factor in limiting future yield growth. To back up his claims, Huber has even organized test plots in a variety of Saskatchewan fields to demonstrate compaction does exist in the West and prove the value of removing it through proper deep ripping.

Taking the readings

On another day and in another field where Tri Star had planted one of those test plots, I walked through a corn stand with Huber and a penetrometer. We stopped to probe the soil in several places and found there were high soil density readings in that field as well. In fact, some readings on the penetrometer went well into the extreme range, despite the fact there was a pretty good stand of corn above the surface.

“We dug out a couple of roots balls and you can see the roots go down a little way then they go straight out to the sides,” said Huber. “Because of compaction.”

Roots that don’t penetrate soils very deeply could leave plants vulnerable in years with limited rainfall. And they prevent crops from accessing nutrients deeper in the soil profile.

The prevailing wisdom on the prairie for a long time has been that the freeze-thaw cycle will take care of any field compaction. But Solberg says it would likely take Mother Nature about five years to fully remove the compaction layers he’s found in most fields. And annual cropping with large-capacity farm machines is putting more into the soils each year. So most fields require additional efforts to help the natural process along.

Despite his findings and personal experience, Solberg says many in the industry still aren’t buying the idea compaction is a factor limiting yields in the west. As he speaks at events like Tri Star’s field day, he still sees resistance to the idea that finding and removing compaction will be essential to producers’ abilities to enjoy continued annual yield growth into the future.

“One of the things I’ve talked a lot about in the last couple of years is the concept of the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed,” he said wryly, suggesting those producers who’ve tackled compaction are reaping the benefits. “When I was working on my masters degree I can remember standing in a crowd and being told by a farmer, ‘Young man, direct seeding ain’t never going to work.’ Now it’s everything. Today, tillage isn’t going to work, except it’s being used all over the planet.”

About the author

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Scott Garvey

Scott Garvey is a freelance writer and video producer. He is also the former machinery editor at Grainews.

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