Don't overdo tillage following wet spring, harvest

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The unusually wet conditions surrounding planting and harvest this year made quite an impact on soil conditions, prompting a recently retired Ohio State University Extension engineer to warn farmers against "recreational tillage" between now and planting the 2012 crop.

"Many farmers will be unable to get back in their fields after harvest," said Randall Reeder, also an associate professor emeritus in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering. "Many fields have ruts and severe compaction issues."

Comparing soil conditions to those seen in 2009, Reeder noted that 2011 is on track to be the wettest year on record for Ohio.

The persistent rains that delayed both planting and harvest this year mean the best course of action for farmers concerned about soil quality may well be no action at all.

"You don't want to make a bad situation worse by performing deep tillage on wet soils because it destroys the soil structure," Reeder said. "If you do tillage you have a looser soil structure, and if we see more rains next spring, that will allow even more compaction issues."

The cumulative effect, he said, is that tillage begets tillage, meaning that attempting to correct ruts and compaction issues too quickly could lead to even more rutting and compaction issues later. Because of the ongoing rains, the window for fall tillage has closed.

Reeder, a well-known advocate for no-till and other reduced-tillage farming practices, acknowledged that even long-term no-till operations saw soil-related challenges this year because of the extreme precipitation. He said that means most farmers are in the same proverbial boat when it comes to dealing with damage in their fields.

"Next spring, do the least amount of tillage necessary to get the ground ready for planting," he advised. "Often a light, shallow tillage operation can smooth out ruts and create a surface ideal, or at least acceptable, for planting."

He emphasized the benefits of controlled traffic, and recommended farmers use the conditions as a learning opportunity. He suggested farmers consider the benefits of continuous no-till, which can include strip-till ahead of corn.

Research has consistently shown that compaction affects crop yields. OSU research involving Hoytville silty clay loam soils showed that compaction costs 10 to 15 percent of a crop's yield potential. Reeder said the research also found that soil managed under continuous no-till resisted compaction better than soil that was subsoiled every three years, and resulted in higher yields.



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