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Addressing rutted fields from the soggy harvest

By Matt Reese

Though it always seems the rutting is a bit worse in the neighbor’s fields, the soggy fall and winter harvest conditions have left no shortage of problem areas to address in Ohio’s corn and soybean fields before spring planting.

Seed Consultants, Inc. agronomist Bill McDonald has seen plenty of rutted up fields in his travels around the state and fears there are no easy answers as long as the wet conditions persist.

“It really concerns me because the closer we get to spring, we are still wet and saturated. I’m afraid the chisel plow is going to be out — with these conditions there is going to be no chisel plowing to get those ruts turned in. It would have been nice if we could have chisel plowed last fall and let this winter freeze take care of that and help with some of the compaction we caused out there this fall, but I don’t see that as an option. It looks to me like a lot of these ruts will be disked in this spring and we’ll have to live with it for another year,” McDonald said. “The compaction will really probably have to be addressed next fall. If Mother Nature would stop it from snowing and let this ground freeze down fairly deep it would take care of some of the compaction problems. We’re not seeing that. When we have snow on the ground, underneath that is just mud. There is not a darn thing we can do right now and Mother Nature is not breaking up any of that compaction for us.”

Between now and planting, options are limited to avoid being stuck in a rut this spring.

“I’m afraid it is going to be an issue where you take a disk and work those ruts in the best you can and plant through them,” McDonald said. “In most cases it is conventional fields that have those ruts. If we get a dry fall we can get out with a chisel plow and break up a lot of that. Hopefully next winter we can solve our problem.”

In conservation tillage or pure no-till situations, those ruts can be even more of a problem.

“My view is that you do the least amount necessary to fill in the ruts. If you just have ruts in maybe 10% of the field, don’t till up the whole field just to correct that 10%,” said Randall Reeder, Ohio State University Extension Agricultural Engineer (retired). “If you have individual ruts, maybe run a tool that will pull soil from the sides back in and fill up the rut. In this example you are not trying to correct the compaction at the bottom of the rut, you are just filling it in level so they don’t hold water and you can get a planter across them next spring.

“One tool I know about is made by Blu-Jet. It is built mainly for areas out west where they have pivot irrigation and ruts that need to be filled in every year. It has two or three disks on each side of a small tool bar that pull the loose soil to the middle to fill in the rut.”

The more significant and lasting challenges with the ruts are likely below the surface, especially in no-till.

“If you have a rut 12 inches deep you have messed up the soil structure. You have compaction underneath it. Planting a cover crop next year that will have a deep root, like oilseed radish or a couple of others, can break through that compaction. That is a biological solution for compaction, which is the preferred way,” Reeder said. “Running a deep tillage tool may be desirable in some worst case scenarios, but try to minimize the amount of deep tillage.”

And, looking forward, there are numerous steps than can be taken to minimize the chances of causing ruts in the first place and limiting the damage they can cause to soil structure.

“It is easier said than done, but try to avoid causing the ruts and severe compaction in the future. I would never tell an individual farmer not to get out and harvest a crop when it needs to be done, but trying to avoid driving on wet soil as much as possible is a common sense thing,” Reeder said. “If you do have to harvest on wet ground, don’t fill the combine bin all the way and maybe only fill the grain cart half full. Do those common sense things to try and minimize the load in those situations. It can slow down the harvest a little bit but it is a good long-term strategy to try to do those kinds of things.”

A controlled traffic system on the farm can be a significant investment in time, money and effort, but can be a very effective long-term solution with many soil structure benefits for the farm, including rut prevention.

“If a farmer has a controlled traffic system they are less likely to have the rut problem to deal with because they will be driving on firm, compacted ground in the first place,” Reeder said.

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