Look for opportunities to reduce tillage frequency and intensity, and use cover crops and manure to protect the environment, recycle nutrients and build stable soil aggregates. 

Managing the farming system to build soil quality

Tillage operations are important in many farming systems to prepare a seedbed; control weeds, insects and disease; manage soil compaction and crop residue; and incorporate soil amendments, so it may be difficult to reduce tillage operations in some cases.

But you can’t simply till your way out of a soil quality problem. Tillage can degrade soil quality by breaking down aggregate structure. Stable soil aggregates are created slowly by natural processes, but they can break down quickly under the action of tillage tools.

Look for opportunities to combine field operations and reduce tillage intensity when managing for soil quality. 

Soil compaction is the loss of pore space in the soil. Pore space is needed for drainage and oxygen exchange, root growth and efficient nutrient use. Tillage and traffic are the primary cause of most soil compaction.

Soil symptoms of compaction are crusting; a cloddy seedbed; standing water; and an absence of plant roots in the soil. Common plant symptoms are variable emergence; variable size; wilting; and yield decline.

Soil compaction can occur in all soils — including mucks and sandy soils; it can be shallow — in the normal tillage zone; deep — below the normal tillage zone, and is most likely in poorly drained, fine-textured soils.

Machinery can damage soil from compression, shear and vibration. Generally, 70 percent to 90 percent of tire sinkage and increase in soil bulk density occurs on the first pass. Repetitive traffic drives compaction deeper. 

Excessive tillage contributes to soil compaction, but strategic tillage is a fast and effective way to reduce compaction. Tillage can increase pore space in the root zone and improve infiltration and drainage, but tillage induced pores are not structurally stable and do not effectively resist traffic induced soil compaction.

After years of reduced-tillage, soil is more resilient and resistant to compaction from traffic, but it can be damaged quickly by working or driving on wet soil.

Natural processes alleviate compaction and improve soil quality

In the long-term, soil compaction can be reduced by natural processes that cause the soil to shrink and swell such as wetting and drying, and freezing and thawing.

Root growth helps fracture compacted soil. Plant roots and soil microbes produce exudates that form natural glue in forming stable soil aggregates. Earthworm activity inverts soil and creates channels for water infiltration and root growth. 

Reduce tillage intensity; add organic inputs — manure and cover crops

Reducing tillage intensity is important, but you can’t simply no-till your way out of a soil quality problem on the weathered, low organic matter, shallow top-soils characteristic of much of Michigan and the Great Lakes Region.

To have an impact in a reasonable period of time you also need additional organic inputs such as crop residue, manure and cover crops.

Cover crops protect the surface from wind and water erosion, recycle plant nutrients, improve water infiltration and add organic carbon to the soil.

Manure provides many of the same benefits. Both manure and cover crops increase organic matter and water holding capacity; improve aggregate stability and water infiltration; and decrease evaporation and soil bulk density.