Boosting crop yields starts at ground level – with soil structure. Soil’s composition and microorganism density help determine its productivity.
“The best way to improve soil structure is to not destroy it,” says Ellen Phillips, University of Illinois Extension educator. “Once soil structure is damaged, it can take many years to recover.”
Heavy equipment that collapses the soil structure can be devastating, with up to 50% yield hits. And while that total collapse of the soil structure may be limited to a small area of a field, it also stands to reason that even slight disruptions can impact yield, notes Tom Halbach, professor and Extension educator at the University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate.
“When the soil structure collapses, it forces out water-holding and gas-exchange soil capabilities,” he says. “And damage one year or two years in a row might not be immediately noticeable, but it’s there, and it’s trimming yield potential because soil-structure loss is an ongoing threat to soil fertility. Once lost it’s incredibly difficult to get back.”
But even with the best intentions, damage to the soil structure can occur. Perhaps it’s a planting window that’s closing fast, so running a planter over wet soils is the only option. Or, it’s December and a wet corn field just can’t wait to be harvested. “Sometimes the choices are difficult, and even the best management can result in some damage to soil structure,” Phillips says.
And while rebuilding soil structure can be a long road, it is not impossible. In fact, it can be a part of any farming operation.
We talked to three soil experts to get their take on how to best improve soil structure: