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New York Soil Health Trailer: Learn about Compaction and Soil Health in Northeast Pastures

A group of people stands under a tent in a field next to a trailer

Two days with rain did not deter the group of grazing educators from across the Northeast attending a “Train the Trainer” seminar with the New York Soil Health Tailer in the early grazing season.
Image courtesy of Fay Benson

The New York Soil Health Trailer brought spring 2019 “Train the Trainer” programs, taught by New York Soil Health Trailer Coordinator and Cornell Extension Specialist Fay Benson, Soil Structure Consultant Larry Hepner, and Cornell Soil Health Laboratory Director Bob Schindelbeck to Brunswick and Troupsburg, N.Y . Seventeen grazing educators attended the two trainings, offered as the first part of a Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (NE SARE) project to educate and provide research on soil compaction in Northeast pasture soils.

The New York Soil Health Trailer will be traveling across the Northeast, participating in pasture walks and other events this summer and fall. Currently scheduled events include July 25-27: Grasstravaganza, Cobleskill, NY; August 6-8: Empire Farm Days, Seneca Falls, NY; August dates TBA: Great New York State Fair, Syracuse, NY;and September 3-6: Maine Soil Field Days, site TBA.

Compaction is an important issue in agriculture affecting soil health and productivity. Compacted soils, which result from heavy tractor and animal use over time, have less water and air flow and are therefore less productive. Identifying compaction is the first step toward remediation. Benson is working with farmers and ag educators to develop tools that he hopes will lead to improved pasture management and therefore more sustainable farms.

Benson’s idea for this NE SARE project is to use a soil penetrometer to measure soil penetration resistance in the fence line of a pasture where no livestock compaction has occurred and within the grazing area where compaction is likely. The objective is to develop tools to help farmers better identify areas of compaction to guide remediation response.

The morning sessions of the recent training programs included morning presentations and discussions followed by afternoon field sessions at two farms, using the penetrometers to measure compaction and examining mini profiles to identify and describe soil structures.

The Trainers

Benson has a number of responsibilities with the Small Dairy Support Cornell University SCNY Regional Team, and as Education Coordinator for the NY Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, and Project Manager of the NY Organic Dairy Initiative. He also travels to many farm events with the New York Soil Health Trailer for demonstrations showing how healthy soils improve infiltration and prevent runoff.

Two hands hold up a soil clod in a field

Consulting agronomist Larry Hepner shows how to identify “platy” structure in the pasture soil. When plates form, they can restrict roots, water, and air from lower depths of the soil.
Image courtesy of Fay Benson

As Director of the Cornell Soil Health Laboratory and a member of the Soil and Crop Sciences Section at Cornell University, Schindelbeck presents the Lab’s analysis of the physical, chemical, and biological properties of soil, how they are measured in the lab, and the interpretations on how to improve soil health.

Hepner, a consulting agronomist and retired Delaware Valley University professor of Agronomy and Environmental Science, spoke at the training sessions to explain how to describe soil structure based on USDA NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) terminology. Structure is how the sand, silt, and clay fit together to form aggregates. Structure is described using terms for type (granular, subangular blocky, platy), grade (weak, moderate, strong, i.e. how visible the individual structural units are), and class (fine, medium, coarse, i.e. size of the granule, block, or plate). Typically, surface soil layers (horizons) have granular structure which is very good for infiltration, water movement, and oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange. Granular structure usually produces maximum growth of plants. When compaction occurs, either by livestock or equipment use, the granules are crushed and converted to plates. Platy structures impede water movement, stay wet longer, and have poor oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange; all in all a much poorer environment for plants, resulting in less growth.

Compaction in pastures and farm fields is difficult to avoid. The good news is that a healthy soil (physical, chemical, and biological properties in balance) allows a soil to be much more resilient when it comes to compaction. Through field research, correlating penetrometer reading and moisture levels, Benson is working to develop ways that farmers and ag educators can better identify soil compaction at any time of year and take appropriate action to address the compaction for improved soil health and farm performance.

Benson suggests graziers test their pasture soil compaction level by using a step-in post, ny pushing the post into the soil up to 6 inches repeatedly ,first in the pasture, then under the fence line. If the grazier notices a significant difference, this indicates they are dealing with pasture soil compaction. It is best if the soil moisture level is at relatively normal condition for testing, not the overly saturated soil as many are dealing with this spring.

Diane Frances is a fabric artist, farmer, and blogger in Harpersfield, N.Y.

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