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  • Norfolk Farms

Soil compaction not a squishy issue

Updated: Feb 8

With Norfolk County’s sand draining quickly as compared to clay, many farmers don’t pay a lot of heed to the issue of soil compaction, but they should.

Guy with a hat on a tractor
Peter Johnson driving a piece of equipment across the sensor from back in his day

The Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) hosted Compaction Day on Aug. 3 to bring awareness to the issue.

Nancy Van Sas of OSCIA explained, “It’s basically OMAFRA have been working on how compaction is affecting farm property.”

Van Sas explained that during Compaction Day sensors are put in at 6, 12 and 20 centimeters on the test farm. The sensors are “like a tube with a filled end at the tip.”

“When it gets squished it records how much pressure is put on it,” she said. “When they drive over it, they look at how much pressure is put at the various levels.”

As part of the demonstration, various types of equipment were used with a variety of tires set at different inflation levels. The equipment was weighed to start with to provide a sense of the difference that made.

The tobacco harvester that I mentioned is heavy, with small tires that suprisingly created the most compaction. It travels down the rows several times throughout the harvest season in the same wheel tracks, so causing a significant amount of compaction as a result

The event was actually three days, and also involved the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. The first two days were for OSCIA and OMAFRA staff to do testing on different soil types. This involved driving various pieces of equipment by the sensors to gauge the soil compaction level. In some cases, the inflation level in the tires was changed and the compaction level tried again. In other cases, two different tires were put on each side of the equipment. 

On day three, OSCIA members who had signed up were invited. More than 100 attended, and with volunteers and sponsors more than 180 people were fed lunch.

The initial testing involved more than 30 pieces of equipment – too much to showcase on day three. Instead, the ones that had the most drastic results were shown. In Norfolk County, half of the equipment tested was for grains and oilseeds with the other half for vegetables and tobacco. 

One of the surprises was the amount of compaction caused by a tobacco harvester.

“That was one of the jaw dropping moments based on the small piece of equipment but it has small tires and is fairly heavy,” Van Sas said.

OMAFRA’s Jim Warren had an open pit displayed to show the different soil types as one of several stations on the public day. A soils are top soils, while B is a mixture of A and C. C soil horizon is the undisturbed subsoil from the last glacial age. On average, top soil is an average of 25 cm deep in Ontario. Van Sas said C is far enough down it isn’t disturbed by normal agriculture but is mixed when a hole is dug. 

“We don’t necessarily want to tap into the C Horizon for farming,” Van Sas explained. “It doesn’t have what the plant needs. It doesn’t have the organic and fertilizer like in the top soil so it’s in our best interest not to tap into it. As soon as you disturb soil, you can never put it back exactly.”

The mobile soil technology lab can move around the countryside and is available for people to rent. Peter Johnson and Steve Sickle, president of OSCIA, were there telling people about the results that are being seen.

Other stations dealt with how to deal with compaction in the field and tire technology. Presented by OK Tire and Tire Craft, representatives talked about various tires and inflation levels. One emphasis was to try to get away from bias ply tires as these have the highest PSI and cause the most damage. Radial tires are better than bias. IF and VF are lower pressure and have increased flexion to help distribute the load better. 

“A lot of times people just pick up their new tractor or equipment and whatever it’s set at people run it at even though it may not be the correct tire pressure,” Van Sas said. 

Compaction Day has been running four years, but has never been offered in Norfolk before. During a conversation at the Brant-Hamilton-Wentworth event at Snobelen’s (outside Brantford) it was mentioned testing had never been done on sand. 

“Sand does compact and that’s something people don’t understand,” Van Sas said, saying even though water may not pool on the surface, wet sand can still be compacted.

If soil is compacted, water may not percolate through the same way and roots may not be able to penetrate. As a result, crops may not come up at the same time as compaction can stunt growth and cause ponding. 

“There’s lots of things under the ground we can’t see that ultimately effect crops,” Van Sas said.

One conclusion coming out of the day was there was a need for some of the same soil technologies Haldimand uses such as different tires, waiting for the soil to dry before getting on the land, planting radish as a cover crop and applying manure. 

Van Sas said once the soil is compacted, it’s not going to fix itself. Hard panning may result and can continue many years. The best way to deal with compaction is prevent it.

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