CROOKSTON, Minn. – While 2020 spring planting rapidly approaches, farmers still are figuring out how to assuage the effects the 2019 harvest had on their fields.
Heavy rains and snow last fall left fields soft and muddy, and the combines, grain carts and trucks left huge ruts – even holes – in the fields during harvest. Meanwhile, farmers who left their crops in the field over winter still are working to combine corn, sunflowers and soybeans.
The rut and compaction damage to fields isn’t limited to northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, Jodi DeJong-Hughes, University of Minnesota Regional Extension educator, told farmers at a meeting Tuesday, March 10, in Crookston.
“Even down in west-central Minnesota we have a lot of ruts,” said DeJong-Hughes, who works out of an office in Willmar. “From the satellite photos, it’s phenomenal and heartbreaking.”
DeJong-Hughes was at the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers “Residue, Ruts and Regrets” meeting at the University of Minnesota Crookston to talk to farmers about soil compaction and managing residue from the 2019 harvest.
Although there have been other years when the previous year’s harvest caused problems with the following spring planting, it hasn’t been to this degree, DeJong-Hughes said.
Research conducted in west-central Minnesota in 2010, the spring after a wet 2009 harvest, showed that corn and soybean yields in rutted areas of fields were reduced. Corn yields, for example, were 17.4 bushels lower. The yield reduction resulted from shorter ear length, smaller cob diameter and less kernel fill, DeJong-Hughes said.
“That’s the sad part about ruts,” she said. “That yield hit you get from compaction will last a long time."
While farmers will be under pressure to get out into the field as early as possible, they need to be patient and wait until they dry, she said.
“The time you want to get out there is the time you mess up the soil the most,” DeJong-Hughes said. Compaction damages soil structure, which further reduces pore space and limits the soil and water filtration necessary for growth of healthy plant roots.
While conventional wisdom indicates that deep tilling will help dry out the soil more quickly, that’s not the case, DeJong-Hughes noted.
“Tilling into wet soil will cause more compaction and smearing,” she said. Smearing occurs when mud is spread across the top of the soil, creating a hard, impermeable layer when it dries.
Once farmers do get in the field, they can reduce the severity of additional soil compaction by making sure the tires on their equipment are properly inflated and reducing the weight on equipment axles as much as possible.
“We can’t control Mother Nature. We can control the inflation and axle load,” DeJong-Hughes said. Limiting the number of times farm equipment travels across a field also will help reduce compaction.
In the end, the weather will have the biggest impact.
“If it keeps raining every week, it doesn’t matter what we do,” DeJong-Hughes said. ”We’re all in trouble.”