What Is Soil Aeration and How Does It Help Your Farm?
Soil aeration is the process of puncturing holes in the ground so air, water and nutrients can get in more easily. If the soil is compacted, your plants’ roots might not receive adequate nutrition and they can weaken or die. Aerating the earth allows grass and crops to develop stronger roots and become healthier overall, leading to lush, thick growth.
What is Compacted Soil?
Compacted soil is a rigid barrier preventing air, water and nutrients from reaching plant roots. It suffocates the roots like a seal. This is a widespread and serious problem in South Africa, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana and other neighboring African countries.
In nature, animals’ hooves aerate the soil by breaking it up, but wild animals don’t linger in one spot and repeatedly trample the ground in the same place. On a farm, however, livestock can compact the soil if they’re left in one place for too long. This is one reason why it’s crucial to practice livestock rotation.
Tractors and trucks can also tamp down the soil. Even foot traffic from frequently walking in one area can cause compaction. In Africa, one proposed solution to the issue of soil compaction is for vehicles to use the lowest possible tire pressure to minimize damage.
Soil compaction mainly happens on the surface layer — even a layer as thin as 1/4 to 1/2 inch of compacted soil can cause a problem. Finer soil particles are more prone to compaction; clay is notorious for this.
What is Soil Aeration?
Soil aeration is a chemical-free method that can improve root growth. It helps your farm by allowing water, oxygen, fertilizer, lime or seeds to penetrate the earth.
If you haven’t seen anyone use this technique before, you probably will in the coming years. As farmers in North Africa and the Middle East become more educated and aware of sustainable agriculture, practices like soil aeration will likely become widespread in the region.
When you aerate the dirt, you let water trickle in, preventing runoff and improving drainage. The primary way of doing this is to poke holes in the top layer of the soil. You can do it manually on a small property, but if you have a farm, the easiest way is to use a large mechanical aerator to get the job done faster and more efficiently.
What Type of Aerator Should You Use?
There are two types of mechanical aerators:
Also called a core aerator, this machine punctures the soil with hollow tubes and throws out plugs of compacted dirt in its wake. You can leave the soil plugs on the ground afterward — they’ll disintegrate within a few weeks. You’ll probably need one of these aerators if you have a large pasture.
Look for the kind that hooks up to a tractor or lawnmower, which is your best bet for covering a large area. These are called tow-behind or pull-behind aerators.
There are small core aerators called walk-behind aerators — also known as gas-powered aerators — that look like push lawnmowers. But since they’re narrow and require you to push them, they’re best for minor jobs like lawn work. Go with the pull-behind type if you’re aerating a field.
This type of aerator simply pokes holes in the ground with solid metal tines. Most are manual, but some hook up to riding lawnmowers or tractors. This type of aerator is less efficient at aerating the soil — the plug type is recommended.
Whichever type of aerator you choose, you can rent or purchase one. Many people don’t aerate their farms often enough to justify buying one. However, it might be worth looking into if you plan on doing it several times.
When Should You Aerate the Soil?
The ground has to be soft to run the aerator. If it’s frozen or dry, it can break the tines. You can do it a few days after rain while the soil is still soft but not soggy.
Only aerate the soil when your grass or crops are actively growing so they can fill in the holes. Warm-season grasses thrive in warm weather, so aerate them in spring or very early summer. Cool-season grasses do best in cool weather, so aim to aerate them in the fall at least one month before the first frost, if you get freezing weather in your region.
Your soil type and activity level will determine how often you need to aerate the soil. For sandy soil with little traffic, you might only aerate once a year, but you might need to aerate the heavy clay soil in a cattle paddock twice a year for maximum effect.
When Will You See a Difference?
You’ll see the most significant difference if your soil was very compact in the first place. It can take years to see visible results, although your plants might already be putting out new roots and growing deeper underneath the earth. Continue aerating your soil regularly to see the best results.
Soil Aeration to Help Your Farm
Consider aerating your farm if the ground is hard, plants are growing poorly or water is pooling on or running off the surface. Aerating the soil can improve plant health by stimulating root growth, which could lead to better crop yields and healthier livestock.