Farmers may be facing more compaction issues than usual this spring. Randall Reeder, an Ohio State University Extension agricultural engineer, says that no-tillers may be better off than others.

“Farmers faced a late harvest and a wet fall, and with so much snow, they haven’t had the opportunity to get into their fields and prepare the ground for planting,” Reeder says.

He adds that heavy combines and grain carts driven on wet, saturated soils increase the risk for soil compaction. Compaction destroys the soil structure and leaves ruts, increasing spring planting problems. That can mean poor plant establishment, putting a ceiling on yield potential.

No-till fields are probably less rutted than soil that was tilled prior to last season, Reeder says.

“However, if ruts exist, do the least amount of light tillage necessary to smooth the field enough for the planter or drill to operate,” Reeder says. “This is no time to try deep tillage. Look for signs of compaction during the summer, and then consider subsoiling or planting a cover crop to correct it after harvest.”

That’s probably good advice for farmers who like to chisel plow in the fall.

“It’s a big risk to till wet ground in March,” Reeder adds. “There’s less chance of freezing and thawing to break up clods before planting.”

Farmers can take steps to better manage compaction in the future:

  • Practice continuous no-till. Ohio State research has shown that continuous no-till resists compaction better than soil that was deep tilled (subsoiled).
  • Plant cover crops to keep plants on the land year-round. Doing so mimics Mother Nature because soil structure, organic matter and other “living” components are in a steady state, says Ohio State Extension educator Jim Hoorman.
  • Practice controlled traffic — a method whereby all farm equipment is driven in the same paths year after year.
  • If you’re not using controlled traffic, run tires at the correct pressure to reduce compaction. “Many farm tires are overinflated, which reduces the tire footprint and increases compaction,” Reeder says. “Many farmers can easily reduce tire pressure and it won’t cost them anything.” Overinflation also reduces traction.
  • Remove excess weights that make a tractor heavier than necessary. Extra ballast needed for a tillage operation could be removed when pulling a planter.
  • Add more tires, or switch to bigger tires or rubber tracks. The more rubber that comes into contact with the ground, the less pressure on the soil.
  • Consider improving surface and subsurface drainage. A good drainage system helps the soil dry out faster, reducing the potential for soil compaction.

"These practices could lead to better soil structure and minimize yield losses in future years," Reeder says.