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There can be a number of challenges with soil biology and structure from long periods of excessive moisture.

Soil health risks in fallow fields

With so many Ohio fields left unplanted this year, farmers should consider the risks to next year’s crops, soil experts from The Ohio State University warn.

If wind or rain carry away the topsoil of a bare field, it can take years to rebuild that topsoil, said Steve Culman, a soil fertility specialist with Ohio State University Extension.

Topsoil is the layer richest in microscopic organisms, which fuel plant growth. Besides losing topsoil, not having any living roots in a field can cause microscopic fungi in the soil to die off, harming the soil’s ability to support a healthy crop, Culman said.

However, it’s unlikely that fields left bare for one year will develop fallow syndrome, which refers to a drop in the yield or health of a crop grown on a previously bare field, he said.

“Soils don’t degrade overnight, typically,” Culman said. “Degradation can happen over many years or decades, just like building healthy soil can take decades.”

If a field stayed bare this year and the farmer is concerned about planting on it next year, he or she can plant soybeans or wheat on those acres because corn is more susceptible to fallow syndrome, Culman said.

Growers may also need to add starter phosphorus fertilizer to fields left fallow this year if a soil test indicates the soil is low in phosphorus, he said.

Across Ohio, 1.5 million acres of farm fields did not have a cash crop sown on them this past spring as a result of the unprecedented amount of rainfall in the state. On some of those acres, farmers planted a cover crop, but many fields went bare.

In northwest Ohio’s Wood County, 40% of the acres that normally have a cash crop planted on them don’t have one this year, and many of those acres are fallow, said Alan Sundermeier, an OSU Extension educator in Wood County.

Some growers did not know enough about cover crops or lacked the time or money to invest in sowing a crop they could not later harvest and sell, Sundermeier said.

Still, it’s not too late to plant a cover crop of wheat or cereal rye on those fallow fields, he said.

“We encourage those unplanted acres to be planted with something living and growing through winter.”

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