Soil compaction is a problem that many producers face, but one they often overlook especially, in livestock production systems. Paying attention to the problem is important since soil compaction can reduce your forage yields and cause slow forage establishment. Soil compaction is a problem that can cost you a lot of money in the long run.
When soil particles are pressed together, it reduces pore space and aeration as well as damages the soil structure, which reduces the soil's ability to retain moisture. You know what happens when soil can't retain moisture? Runoff and poor drainage is the result we get.
Compacted soil also decreases organic matter, reduces microbial activity and increases erosion and nutrient leaching. All these things really affect plant growth and that's why you end up with sparse or bare patches and low overall yields.
Soil compaction results from natural and operational factors. Severe compaction is almost always due to management practices. Wheel traffic is the main culprit. As farm equipment has become heavier and producers' time has become more limited, machinery has become an even bigger contributor to compaction. Hoof traffic can also cause compaction, especially near waterers, feeders and gates.
Tillage operations at the same depth, over time, can cause severe compaction to the layers below the tillage depth. Wet soils are most susceptible to compaction. Busy schedules make waiting for optimal soil moisture difficult.
You can take some simple steps to prevent and reduce the severity of soil compaction. Knowing your soil type and soil properties can help you make management decisions. (This information can be gathered form the local USDA office). Soils higher in clay and low in organic matter have a greater potential for compaction. Focus on building organic matter in the soil to develop a good soil structure while you decrease soil bulk density.
If you can keep a thick stand of forages, you can increase manure distribution. Reducing tillage can build the soils organic matter. Try to control and reduce wheel traffic, especially on wet soils.
The use of cover crops can help with a compaction problem as well as help build organic matter. Planting tillage radishes in severely compacted areas is another way to reduce compaction. These plants provide a thick ground cover, and its large tap roots can penetrate compacted soils. Be sure to plant a forage-type radish if you intend to graze or pasture the cover crop. Many producers plant a forage radish with a mixture of annual ryegrass or cereal rye. The local NRCS office has some great information on the benefits of using cover crops in all farming operations.
For livestock production consider installing high-traffic pads around waterers, feeders and gates. If you regularly move feeding areas, you can prevent any one area from becoming severely compacted but will not cut down on all compaction.
As you can see below in "figure 1" the amount of pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure that is applied to the ground by a human, livestock, and a bulldozer. Compare that to "figure 2" and you can see the amount of pressure or the strength that certain types of soil or materials can withstand before problem start to arise.
The stress applied to the soil, by foot traffic can many times exceed the strength of the soil and lead to unforeseen problems that can have a major effect on overall production.
For more information on preventing or reducing soil compaction, contact the Pulaski County Extension Office.
Source. Jeff Lehmkuhler, Ray Smith, Extension Specialists