Soil health, tillage, cover crops


Claypan soils cover approximately 10 million acres across several states in the central United States. The soils are characterized by a highly impermeable clay layer within the profile that impedes water flow and root growth. While some claypan soils can be productive, they must be carefully managed to avoid reductions to crop productivity due to root restrictions, water, and nutrient limitations. Clay soils are usually resistant to erosion but may exacerbate erosion of the silt-loam topsoil.

Soil production potential is the capacity of soil to produce at a given level (yield per acre). The productive capacity is tied to soil characteristics, which can be highly variable within a field. In this project, we have used imagery analysis to study the aerial images and terrain of fields during different productive times of the year to identify where soil samples should be collected for more discrete analysis. Soil samples provide valuable information; however, the amount of data obtained from a relatively small area within a field does not provide sufficient information to delineate the subsurface characteristics. To address the limitations of sampling, we have also employed the use of yield maps collected from commercial yield monitors on production-scale combines and surface electrical conductivity measurements (Sassenrath and Kulesza, 2017).

Soil conductivity is a measurement of how well a representative volume of soil conducts electricity. Soil conductivity is a function of the soil clay content, moisture content, and other measurable soil properties (Kitchen et al., 2003); as such, it has become a valuable tool for mapping in-field variability. The main advantage of a soil conductivity measurement is that the entire surface of a field can be imaged. The disadvantage of a soil conductivity measurement is that data are only collected near the surface (10 – 30 inches) and the measurements are relative measurements. This means that the conductivity mappers can identify changes in soil properties, but they cannot directly tell researchers what caused these changes.

Electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) is a popular near-surface geophysical measurement for geophysical and engineering applications. The term “near-surface” generally means down to around 30 feet in the subsurface. Electrical resistivity is the reciprocal measurement of electrical conductivity; therefore, both systems measure differences in the same soil properties. ERT measurements are different than surface electrical conductivity measurements because ERT collects a “slice” of data into the subsurface, as opposed to only changes at the surface area. Relative measurements, similar to those collected in an electrical conductivity survey, are collected; however, in ERT studies the data are mathematically inverted to yield the true electrical resistivity of the soil with depth. This allows an interpretation of the changing soil properties with depth to reduce the required amount of sampling. A disadvantage of an ERT survey is that the data acquisition is stationary so mapping an entire field is not feasible. We have used a coupled process of imagery and terrain analysis, yield maps, and electrical conductivity measurements to guide the locations of ERT surveys in this project (Tucker-Kulesza et al. 2017).

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