Managing Compaction on Pastures when Soil Moisture Content is High

Richard Taylor, Extension Agronomist; rtaylor@udel.edu

During the rather warm weather of this past weekend I spent a couple of relatively uncomfortable nights when our new air conditioner wouldn’t start. Although this can hardly be called earth shattering news, it did bring to mind how we all seem to have forgotten the days when AC was not available and wasn’t built into our tractors as standard equipment. Following the uncomfortable weekend, I was asked if it is important to consider how wet some pastures or areas of pastures are when choosing the tractor to use when dragging a chain drag across the pasture to break up manure piles. Although we might be tempted to use whatever sized tractor we have that has AC and all the comforts of modern equipment, it is important to keep in mind that we should use only as large and heavy a piece of equipment as is necessary to complete the job. In the case of dragging pastures to spread manure piles to prevent the piles from killing the grass/legume beneath them, a small tractor or ATV capable of pulling the chain drag is all that is needed.

Although grazing animals can contribute to compaction issues, I think it is good management to minimize all other sources of compaction. Mowing recently grazed pastures or dragging them to redistribute the manure are excellent practices in their own right. Mowing leftover spring grass removes seed heads and stimulates the grass to produce new vegetative tillers that are high in nutritive value. Spreading manure helps it to dry out and get into contact with more soil surface area to encourage rapid decomposition. Dragging manure spreads the nutrients over more land area and removes manure piles that can suffocate or shade out the underlying grass creating space for weed encroachment. When piles are not broken up and distributed around the pasture, animals selectively graze away from the grass in and around the pile causing reduced utilization of the pasture.

Choosing to use the biggest and perhaps newest heavy duty equipment can make the job of mowing or dragging pastures more tolerable but in the process of doing a good management practice you end up cancelling all the good you will be doing by causing more compaction problems, especially in the wetter areas of a pasture. Compaction, and especially deep compaction issues, are very difficult to resolve without a total pasture renovation in which the pasture is deep ripped, tilled, and replanted. Compaction issues tend to be cumulative until poor productivity or weed competition becomes severe enough to demand a solution — total pasture renovation. So, take out the sun screen or pull on a large hat, wheel out the four wheeler or one of the older, smaller tractors and avoid more compaction!

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