Seed World

The Impacts of Soil Compaction on Soil Health and Crop Production

VP of Ag Science,
Heliae® Agriculture

Dr. Cassidy Million serves as the VP of Ag Science, where she champions industry outreach, agronomy trials and product training for the company’s portfolio of microalgae solutions: PhycoTerra®. Dr. Million has served the industry in plant nutrition and soil product research and the USDA as a plant pathologist. Million earned both her master’s and doctorate in plant pathology and phytopathology from The Ohio State University and holds a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in plant science from Indiana University Southeast.

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Soil type, water content, weather conditions, heavy traffic, and tilling can all play a role in creating hard-to-manage, compact soil. 

Clay and silt soils and soils in wetter climates are most susceptible to compaction. Yet, sandy and loamy soils in dry climates aren’t always safe from compaction. 

Heavy traffic and tillage can also create compact soil. A 35-40 ton piece of farming equipment can impact 3 to 4 feet of soil. These heavier machines mean 80% of soil compaction happens on the first pass. 

It’s important growers know how soil compaction impacts soil health, crop production, and yield potential, while taking proactive measures to avoid compaction.  

Impacts of Soil Compaction on Your Soil Health

Soil compaction happens when aggregates, and the pores they provide in your soil, are reduced. This increases soil density, lowers aeration, and decreases water holding capacity. 

Fields often experience poor drainage and increased salinity levels due to the limited oxygen and water penetration into the soil.  

Compaction also leads to erosion and nutrient leaching

The biology in your soil, like soil microbes and worms, also suffers and can’t improve the soil aggregates without the air, water, and nutrients needed for survival.

Impacts of Compaction on Your Crop Production

From planting to harvest, soil compaction can have devastating effects on crop production. 

Compacted soil is hard to plant into. As your crop grows, roots can have difficulty penetrating the soil and accessing nutrients. Lack of aeration and gas exchange hinders root metabolism, leading to below-average germination and poor stand establishment.

Surviving plants will experience abiotic stress from lack of water, normally used to move nutrients throughout the plant. They’ll also be less drought tolerant and can experience stunted growth

Soil microbes normally help your crops access the nitrogen and phosphorus they need, but they can’t in cases of soil compaction. 

All these factors lead to a decrease in your crop yield performance. On average, compacted crops produce 10% to 20% less than healthy soils. 

12 Ways to Help Avoid Soil Compaction

  1. Invest in flotation tires. 
  2. Be careful not to overinflate tires. 
  3. Implement controlled traffic farming (CFT) practices.
  4. Lower axle loads.
  5. Decrease heavy machinery traffic passes in fields. 
  6. Move all equipment to the same path. 
  7. Avoid heavy machinery passes on wet fields.
  8. Plant cover crops to help maintain moisture within the soil.
  9. Add organic material to feed the biology in your soil.
  10. Implement a crop rotation, Adding bigger root crops can increase water infiltration by 10-100x.
  11. Implement low- or no-till practices. If you must till, only do so when it’s dry.
  12. Feed your soil microbes a carbon-rich microbial food. Around 75% of all microbes are dormant or inactive in most farm soil. A microalgae superfood can wake up dormant microbes and put them to work, protecting your soil health, structure, and texture.

How do you know if your field is experiencing soil compaction? 

Check your roots. Horizontal root growth, instead of vertical, means your roots are likely searching for porous, non-compact soils. Areas without vegetation may also suggest soil compaction due to continuous traffic. 

If so, make a plan to implement some of the solutions above.  

Unaddressed soil compaction could diminish 20% of the global cropland in the coming decades. Don’t let your fields fall victim to this avoidable outcome.