How do your soils handle rain?

Understanding the impact of rainfall in various tillage and cropping systems.

Precipitation that falls on a field either infiltrates the soil, returns to the atmosphere by evapotranspiration or runs off. In order for water from rainfall to have value in crop production, it must enter the soil. Observing how rain infiltrates your farm fields can provide insight into the management of your soils as well as the effectiveness of your cropping system. Infiltration is dependent on soil texture (percent sand, silt and clay) and how these soils are managed. Water moves quickly through large pore spaces in sandy soils and much slower through smaller pore spaces in clayey soils. Water infiltration rate is a good indicator of the soil’s ability to allow water to move into the soil profile for storage, making it available for plant uptake.

Management practices that lead to poor infiltration rates include

  • Leaving the soil bare after harvest
  • Excessive tillage activities that disrupt surface connected pore spaces and prevent the accumulation of organic matter
  • Excessive equipment traffic, especially on wet soils, that cause compaction and reduce porosity

Farmers can improve infiltration rates in the soil by incorporating a number of conservation practices including

  • Crop rotation
  • Cover cropping
  • Applying manure or compost
  • Reduced tillage
  • Residue management

Generally, practices that focus on improving infiltration rates minimize soil disturbance, protect soil from erosion, reduce crusting and compaction, encourage the development of good soil structure and increase aggregation of soil organic matter.

Farmers can learn more about the impact of water infiltration and other soil health topics by attending the Michigan State University Agriculture Innovation Day: Focus on Soils on Aug. 24, 2016, at the Saginaw Valley Research and Extension Center in Frankenmuth, Michigan. Experts will deliver innovative information to help producers take the next step in improving their bottom line while maintaining environmentally sound practices on their farms. The program will begin with registration at 8 a.m. and wrap up around 4 p.m. The event is free and includes lunch.

MSU Agriculture Innovations is supported by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, MSU Extension and MSU's AgBioResearch. To learn more, visit the MSU Agriculture Innovation Day web page on the MSU Extension website, or contact Ron Bates at

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