How is Soil Water Important to Developing Plants and Fertility?

Couple three weeks ago I laid out some items that may provide clarification to a developing root system, first I shared about the fertility placement and then wrote to you how soil porosity (abundance, size and continuity) is so important.  Soils that are massive or compacted will inhibit root development and depth of penetration for so may crops, perennials can adapt and push through over the years.  For an annual plant such as corn, soybeans, dry edible beans, canola – oh we have problems.

So let us consider the water content of soils, where the water is in a soil profile, if there may be a dry sandwich layer (more moisture above a dry zone and wetter below), how much suction power (or not) does a plant exert to draw moisture into the roots, that ‘zone’ around the physical root diameter for water uptake, how far can a root dehydrate or drink water from the root itself, how much that is and briefly what mycorrhizae hyphae does in aiding water uptake.  All of the above are factors along with climatic conditions; humidity of the atmosphere, heat of the day, wind and then crop stage.

Fig. 1:  On the left is very young plant at V4, the right is a plant at VT

 As a plant ages the amount of biomass that is alive has a certain demand for water; for instance, a V4 corn plant is only 13 grams but a fully mature plant with a developing ear may be 2450 grams – 190X more grams and surely a bigger demand to keep hydrated and functioning.
Images to your left represent what we might be looking at….

Facts of water holding capacity:

When the soil matrix is near field capacity for a medium textured soil (silt loam or loam) it can hold nearly 0.34-0.40 inch/cubic inch – what is available tho is 0.21 to 0.22 inch per cubic inch.  So in a root zone of the V4 plant the root zone is fairly small, potentially in 144 cubic inches of root zone it could have 16 oz of water available to the root system.  When a plant has reached maximum height, maximum root volume in the soil (VT-R1) we are seeing 5000 to 6500 cu. inches of soil volume that can hold water and make it available to the roots.  If soil profile is at field capacity when plant is mature we are looking at 21.6 to 28.2 gallons of water available.  Compare that to 1 cubic yard then we would have a field capacity 202 gallons available in a silt loam soil profile.  Great potential, however those numbers at that stage of growth in a corn field are extremely rare.

Facts of Dryness:

Consider how a soil will be refilled by rain events or irrigation in a medium textured soil (bear with me), the profile has to over fill the upper horizons first to help push water downward through cracks, crevices and pores as well as gravity pulling it.  A soil that may be very dry, down to near the hygroscopic range, the soil fills somewhat slow then seems to catch up and water moves into the soil profile.  There are times when the soil is so dry a condition called “hydrophobicity” sets up and water will be shed and runoff (not infiltrate).  This happens during long drought spells and when a fire has swept across the surface at temperatures up above 500 degrees F.  Waxes, lipids, fats and resins in the soil organic matter are the usual culprits that cause such an effect.  A 25mm or 1 inch rain when the soil surface is real dry will rarely fill the upper portion of the soil profile evenly.  In a strip till environment we find that a 25mm or 1 inch rain may penetrate 30-35cm (12-14 inches) in the strip tilled area but only 10 to 15cm (4-6 inches) between the strips when it is very dry.  Part of the reasoning, we have observed over the last 20 years in strip tilled fields the  residue between the strips may shed water towards the strip zone, and the porosity and shallow roots under the residue absorb water very quickly.  So I am telling you this to say the soil profile will have dry spots, shallow depth in parts and in strips deeper penetration – this gives the plants an advantage in strip till.  The existing pores under the residue where the soil surface has not been disturbed in most cases will have contiguous pores under where last years crop stood and aid in water penetration unless as I said it is super dry like the 2020 late summer into fall and winter.

Fig. 2:  Courtesy Gary Naylor – Intense rain on soils that puddled bad then soils flow and erosion is severe.

Compacted Soils – And Potential Soil Erosion

I have observed and also measured water movement when soils have a compacted layer within the upper 6 inches (15cm).  Ugly effects.  What happens?  Because of what we call an “abrupt discontinuity” at the top of the compacted layer there is a smear zone.  Pores, cracks, crevices, even some of the vertical ped faces can be cut off or truncated, as with a rapid rain events or large doses of irrigation (flood) the soil above the compacted layer has to fill to 130% of field capacity before gravitational water starts to pull water in and down.  What does all that have to do with soil water?  A bunch, when water is not able to penetrate the soil profile and refill pores so a growing plant can survive – we have problems; the results may well be runoff carrying away soil for a period of time unless the rain slows to a infiltration rate below the normal soil textural rate (ie: loam soils have a standard infiltration rate of  0.6 to 1.0 inch/hour, silty clay loam soils standard rate is 0.2 to 0.6inch/hour).  When soils become that saturated and the rain continues to pelt down at a high rate (>1.5-2 inches per hour), the soil above the compaction usually turns into a gel like substance and then flow – water erosion becomes horrendous.  Image to your left is a perfect example – losses may exceed 50 to 160 tons/acre.

The amount of water that we hoped to penetrate and go into the soil and replenish what the plants have absorbed or evaporated will be way short of what could and should have refilled the soil.  Now please do not think that moldboard plowing is the answer.   Strip tillage shanks or coulter units follow the normal vertical structural units of the soil and disturb the soil without inverting, smearing, rolling and smashing soil structural units.  All of those disturbances damage soil structure which can and will alter soils to become massive, reducing porosity and that results in  less water content for root access.

Water is the essence of plant life.  Without water and at the right times plant desiccate, wither and die.  Water obtained and drawn into the plants by the root system move sugars, proteins, carbohydrates and basic nutrients into the xylem and phloem tubes to continue the cycle of photosynthesis.  It is said and studied by plant scientists that 98%+ of the water in and used by plants come from the soil profile.  I can hear several of you say – That is an understatement or in one word, DUH!  My writing such is to note we are farmers of water and the soil profile is the bank account we manage with certain tillage practices.  This discussion is to emphasize with what we promote with Strip Tillage we are helping you with water infiltration, where it gets banked, making a root system as big as necessary to grow a crop whether it is forage, grains, fruits, tubers, bulbs or nuts.

Effective zone around the root and root hairs can obtain water:

Fig. 3:   Diagrams of zone where root of 1mm size pulls water.  The red line indicates the distance water can be sucked into the plant (1cm to 2.5cm) on the left.

Roots have to compete against the tension water is held by organic matter and clay particles in the soil to pull water into the epidermis and then Xylem transports it up to the above ground portions of the plant for cooling, hydration and photosynthesis processes.  The suction can be measured in atmospheres, pounds of force, or dynes.

In the diagram to the left there is a cross section of a root and then a red line around it giving you an idea of how far the root can pull or suck water when the soil pores are full of water, the tension soils hold water at that phase is 1/3rd of an atmosphere.  That is easily obtainable water and the plant exerts little effort.  For ease of reference to remember, that is 1 to 2.3 cm or approximately 1/4 to near 1 inch around the root.  Finer root size can squeeze into smaller pores, the larger roots when growing fast and down deep do not send as many roots radially outward and may grow past drier zones for cooler and more moist environments.

FIG. 4:   Depiction of an Orthman root dig with very fast vertical root development (red circled area) shows where very, very few lateral roots developed

With this drawing [Figure 4] of a root dig we at Orthman completed in 2012 with fast growing conditions of the hot summer, roots show little to no lateral root expression within the 18-32 inch depth. At the time of this root dig it was late August, the plants were mature and had finished pollinating.  We returned near to the same site after harvest, dug new holes and discovered the zone 18-32 inches still had moisture and the rest of the soil profile was bone dry.

My intention is to illustrate that both lateral roots and root hairs can make a significant difference in water uptake.  Then with the later soil-root dig we observed the remaining mosit soils.


Lastly, Mycorrhizae hyphae contribute to water uptake:

The ever emerging and broader knowledge of mycorrhiza is fascinating and a study in itself with how and what they contribute to crop production.  I have written about this fungi before and will just briefly identify in this article what they contribute to plants in water uptake.

The hyphae are small filaments microns in size that grow out from the hosts root into the soils in the upper 4 to 12 inch depth of the soil profile.  Aerobic in nature they do not live too much deeper into the soil.  These hyphae can extend outward from the host plant up to 10cm (4in).  As they do they can absorb water and nutrients to feed its host to continue growing more hyphae.  Brassicas – plants of the mustard family do not have a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhiza.  Nearly all other terrestrial plants do.

A very interesting feature of these symbionts that they aid the plant handle droughty conditions.  Even cactii have a solid relationship with mycorrhizal fungi and thrive due to their interaction.  Offering  another quick fact about mycorrhizal hyphae –  Glomalin is a glycoprotein produced abundantly on hyphae and spores of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in soil and in roots. Glomalin was discovered in 1996 by Sara F. Wright, a scientist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service.  I had the honor of meeting Dr. Wright when she came to the Great Plains USDA-ARS Experiment Station near Akron, Colorado and she taught a field course about her discovery, identifying the microscopic filaments, the importance of glomalin as a “soil glue” and soil aggregate stability.  Since that date the science of soil fungi has exploded and brought so much more to the science of soils.

FIG. 5:   Computer image of a soybean root (in yellow) and the hyphae near the surface are very fine in size.

As I said water is absolutely essential and provides life or without soil waster most plant life does not exists.  Offering you a small window into the realm of soil science that incorporates physics, biology, chemistry, and specific root relationships that are of recent findings.

Stay tuned as we explore more.

Soil Biopores from Previous Crop – Influences 2021 Crop

Fig 1. Example of compacted root system of canola visualized by X-ray tomography Courtesy Univ. of Adelaide, Australia, 2004  Lateral root expression at 12 to 15cm depth due to compaction. Root volume is then 80% of the root mass is in the upper 20cm (8in).

As I wrote last week that I would update you the reader of the PrecisionTillage blog on more facets of rooting, tillage, nutrient uptake and also water uptake.   As I peel a softball sized onion of how soils are so important to every nuance of crop growth, I find more research I need to read, digest and cover to provide you important clues on how to raise a profitable yield. Over the course of a few days working here at my office I have read some interesting material.

Han, Kautz & Köpke (2015) observed in a study of crops following chicory (a taprooted plant) and a planting of tall fescue which produce quite different root systems. In their research growing barley after the taprooted crop vs fibrous fescue, the roots sampled after the tap rooted chicory resulted in a higher Root Length Density (RLD) of two upper root diameter classes (medium and coarse roots; 0.38 cm cm−3) in comparison to tall fescue (0.23 cm cm−3).  Roots come in four root diameter classes, very fine (<0.1 mm), fine (0.1–0.2 mm), medium (0.2–0.5 mm), and coarse roots (>0.5 mm).  Their data suggest the root architecture of precrops resulted first in different patterns of soil biopores, second in a different morphology of the root system of the subsequent crop and third in amount of soil explored by subsequent crop root systems.  Their work detailed that roots of the fine and medium diameter size increased the RLD overall.

In research efforts we carried out at the Irrigation Research Foundation (2004-2007), we determined that with a Strip Till then plant approach in irrigated corn the medium and fine roots increased 4.4X in number under strip till compared to a chisel/disk/springtooth harrow then plant system. Consequently the water infiltration rates improved from 0.6in/hr to 2.9in/hr and more in the 3 year study.

Modeling with X-ray tomography methods in Germany researchers have determined that soils that are compacted (in the upper 25cm-10inches) rely upon the biopores throughout the soil profile in small grains to take up water, nutrients, exchange gases (O2,NO, CO, CO2, etc) and to penetrate greater depths [M. Landl, A. Schnepf et. al, 2019].  Using some modeling processes the researchers simulations suggest that the influence of biopores on root water uptake differs for different soil densities as well as soil types. Due to the larger increase in rooting depth, vertical biopores had a more beneficial effect on root water uptake in more compact soil. Furthermore, the effect of biopores was more evident in a sandy loam than in silt loam due to the sandy loam’s higher soil hydraulic resistivity when the soil was nearer to hygroscopic water conditions.  Landl and her fellow researchers went on to say, the positive influence of biopores persisted even under the assumption of reduced root water uptake in biopores due to limited root–soil contact within the pores and was larger for dense soil than for loose soil, again this was specific to sandy loam textures over that of silt loam soils. Improvements of 9-24% more.  In Figure 1, the canola plant root (a taprooted crop) followed an old biopore until it hit the compacted zone then turned lateral.

Fig. 2 X-ray tomography images of canola root at 60-112 days growth entering the subsoil.  The yellowish root enters surface tilled soils in B, and encounters more dense (compacted zone)as plant matures from left to right in C, D and E.  Image courtesy Univ. of Adelaide, Australia


The images to the left depict a series of the X-ray tomographs from 60 days after emergence to approximately 112 days after and what transpired with root development as it encountered the compacted subsoil.  The red letter “a” points out across B-C-D-E where the roots enter biopores to penetrate the compacted zone.

Comments and Suggested Conclusions:

Both sets of authors I have referenced here have quantified to a degree that roots from subsequent crops are influenced significantly by size of biopores from previous years and tillage.  Our work at the IRF verify that old biopores that are still in tact and continuous into the subsoil influence root development and water uptake.  We determined in the IRF study that strip till played a significant role in larger biopores being developed in corn and accentuating roots to penetrate further into the soil profile.

These kinds of data for me say that a crop rotation of crops that leave larger pores (medium and large as described above) have a role in water management, potential drought survival, more potential for the crop to develop a robust root system and possibly yield improvements.  It is a goal of ours (Orthman) this coming summer with aid from an intern and the Vo-Ag students carryout some root length density observations where we will be 2 years corn on corn compared to last years soybean crop.  Keep tuned in.


References I used for this blog:

, & Precrop root system determines root diameter of subsequent crop, Biology and Fertility of Soils volume 52pages 113–118

Landl, M.; 2019, Modeling the impact of biopores on root growth and root water uptake., Vadose Zone Journal, Vol.18, Issue 1, pp.1-20.

New information regarding placement of Phosphorus with Strip Tillage

I know I have brought before you all information stating that Phosphorus (P) placement can be maximized with Strip Till. This time I am going to touch upon that argument again because some more information has come to light with researchers in the U.K. and Germany just within the last couple of years, as well I want to share with some of our work at Orthman in root improvements with placement.

As a soil scientist working for USDA-NRCS before coming into the private world, I had 25 years of looking at over 420 root systems via post-harvest root digs in both rainfed and irrigated crops; now near 11 more years with Orthman Manufacturing I have more than doubled that number. That said, I have not had the privilege to see roots of corn, soybeans, dry edibles, sunflowers, small grains, canola and other crops with the X-ray computer tomography technologies.  All my efforts have been more hands-on and crop destructive by digging a 3 dimensional pits and teasing out the living roots then sketch a diagram of said roots.  I say this to allow you to compare my information, data compared to what the researchers I typed about in the first paragraph.

The researchers; Morris et al. from the United Kingdom, University of Nottingham in Current Biology wrote that there are several variations of why roots develop and form a specific architecture or shape early in its growth to maturity due to environmental signals, what are called biotic and abiotic.

  • Gravity is the first; roots have the ability to sense direction of gravity very early on. Within 8 hrs after the seed planted imbibes water which is 10-12 hrs prior to root emergence.  This is called positive gravitropism.

  • Light – sunlight that is. Plant roots are negatively phototropic, they grow away from light.

  • Each plant species have differing angles of roots depending upon different classes of roots; primary, seminal, adventitious and so on.

  • Biotic stresses – insects, soil organic matter, microbial and fungal (mycorrhizae) help or hindrances

  • Abiotic stresses – nutrient gradients in the soil, N,P,K, S etc, compaction, and dried out zones

  • Soil water content and replenishing of soil water

  • Soil structure: blocky vs prismatic vs granular vs massive

  • Soil pores; continuous and non-continuous from the soil surface

  • Neighboring plant roots

In this segment of the Precision Tillage agronomic blog I want to expand upon the fifth bullet point, stress or address the advantage from phosphate nutrients placed or absent.  I will attempt to go through the other bullet points in future blogs.

We at Orthman have said and have observed in numerous fields’ better root structure, root numbers, size of roots, even measured root length density when P products are positively and precision placed.  We have stated clearly that there is a “sweet spot” where to place P in the soil with strip till (the Orthman 1tRIPr tool predominantly) and the research papers I have read bear that to be true. We have stated it is between 6 and 8 inches deep.  We have ascertained from reading and our own research that placement depth is when the plants root system is in full force extracting nutrients from 6 to 10 inches depth.  In a fashion folks we have not been telling you all a far-fetched story of fairy dust and the planet Mars having water to drink or irrigate crops with in the year 2155.  Soybean research carried out by scientists [F.D. Hansel et al., 2017] in southern Brazil noted that soybeans using triple superphosphate placed with a strip till method compared to No-Till broadcast and No-Till banded.  These data depict that root length density (RLD) at the 6 to 8 inch zone below the surface in the deep banded strip till P was 58% greater than the No-Till broadcast P approach and 46% improved than No-Till banded P at planting time. Their yield results had little penalty under the strip till compared to No-Till.  At depths of 8 to 12 inches, I saw from their graphs at one site 72% more RLD in strip till compared to No-Till P being broadcast on the surface and at the second site, 38-62% more RLD.  All of this and more is in the paper published in Agronomy Journal referenced at the end of this agronomic blog.

I am including some diagrams to illustrate the point of increased RLD in a specific zone due to placed phosphorus fertility as the scientists from Brazil share from soybeans and of Orthman’s work [soybeans, cotton & corn] and research in barley.

Cotton – Orthman Field research 2013 -Conventional Tillage with surface banded P in Texas

Orthman Field research 2013 – Texas Strip Till Cotton with deep banded P prior to plant


From the images to your left you can observe that the surface banded P&K cotton plants show shallow roots in the first set of laterals of the cotton plant in the conventionally tilled portion of the field, then in the remainder of the field the grower strip tilled with an Orthman 1tRIPr and placed a portion of his P&K nutrients with the strip till pass at 6 inches depth.  The plants exerted effort to send laterals at 6-7 in, then 9 to 10 inches and a set of laterals at 18 inches deep.

The total depth of the strip tilled cotton was 29 inches deep and the volume of roots was near 45-50% more in total volume of the soil explored compared to the conventionally tilled cotton and surface banded P&K at planting time.

Cotton yields in bales per acre.  Conventionally tilled cotton yielded 2.9 bales or 1595lbs lint per acre and the strip till yields were 3.4 bales or 1870lbs lint per acre.
(These cotton plots were in the Sunray, Texas area.)




Irrigated soybeans – Orthman Research Farm 2010 Conv Till vs Strip Till with P&K placement (Near Lexington, NE)

In these images to your left and below, soybeans that were strip tilled and conventionally disk-spring field cultivator depict differences from our root excavations.  All delineations are in inches both depth and laterally.

The soybeans that were strip tilled and P&K placed at 6 1/2 inches deep show more total root numbers and soil volume explored in the first 24 inches as well as in final depth at 53 inches ST vs 44-45 inches deep under the conventionally tilled scenario.

Yield in bushels per acre (bpa).  The conventionally tilled soybeans were 62bpa and the soybeans under the strip till yielded 73bpa.







The image down and to your left depicts barley (Hordeum vulgare).  Deep banding of varying nutrient loads are shown between the two dark lines.  The authors of this work in their illustrations depict a larger mass when plants are deep banded with phosphorus and nitrate nitrogen.  This was not strip till research, but work from Hodge shown below, but it depicts what does happen with banded nutrients in a small grain.

Barley root systems enhanced by deep banding various nutrients at the 5 to 7 inch depth with the use of a coulter injection tool.


Below are two root systems from irrigated corn research from eastern Colorado at the Irrigation Research Foundation Research Centre near Yuma, CO, 2009. Research funded by Colorado Corn Growers Association and Monsanto.

The root system (see below) of corn which was strip tilled with the Orthman 1tRIPr and liquid N-P-K was applied compared to plots of No-Till corn, same variety and relative maturity day length on the right.  The precision placed nutrient load was the same equivalent of what was used via the 1tRIPr, was band sprayed (15inches wide) one day after the pass of the planter over the row area.  Both areas of the field were planted at 32K plants per acre.

The root system is deeper is 28% deeper, the root mass is 34% more in volume of soil-to-root density with the strip tilled corn compared to the Direct Seeded corn.   The roots in the No Till corn have a wider lateral spread away from the trunk of the plant in the upper 5-6 inches of the soil profile.  In a drought scenario the NoTill corn could suffer.  What we did notice that the No Till called for 2.5 inches more irrigation to be applied under overhead sprinkler irrigation.

The end result was fewer bushels per acre with the No Till or Direct Seed method at harvest time.  Yields; NT – 209 bpa vs ST – 216 bpa.  Water saved was 2.5-3 inches of applied water with the Strip Till and a 7 bpa improved yield.

To Summarize:

From the research efforts of others across the pond and here what we have observed at Orthman; we can offer you these points….

  1. Precision placed P&K has contributed to better P & K uptake

  2. Positive placed nutrients increases biomass of the roots and above ground plants

  3. The illustrations of soybeans, cotton, barley and corn offer strong evidence of more roots which in-turn can obtain more nutrients and water

There can be yield improvements, depending upon climatic concerns; rain, drought, hail and winds.  Our trials in cotton, soybeans and corn all provided some positive results in final grain and lint yield.

Mid-season 50 old corn plants (irr.) on left, Strip Till  w/Deep placed P&K at 6in. a proliferation of roots in orange circled areas.
On right, No-Till surface applied P&K which are mostly immobile in  calcareous soils such as these in Eastern Colorado, orange
outlined area shows where majority of roots are

There is still much more research that is being carried out regarding placement, the right products, the correct timing of application of nutrients beyond nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium the major three of the macro-elements.

Referenced Material I used and read for this blog article:

Morris, E.C., 2017, Shaping 3D root system architecture. Current Biology 27, pg 919-930
McNear, et al., 2013, The rhizosphere – Roots, soil and everything in between. Soil, Agriculture and Agricultural Biotechnical Engineering, 4(3) 1-
Hodge, A., 2004,  The plastic plant: Root responses to heterogeneous supplies of nutrients., New Phytologist 162:9-24
Meurier, F., et al., 2020.  Hydraulic conductivity of soil grown lupine and maize unbranched roots and maize root-shoot junctions. Journal of Plant Physiology  In Press
Peng, Y. et al., 2012,  Temporal and spatial profiling of root growth revealed novel response of maize roots under various nitrogen supplies in the field.  PLoS ONE 7(5) e37726
















A couple-three new facts about the Farmers Nemesis – Compaction

I think everyone who have been reading have come to getting the idea that we at Orthman Manufacturing have a very reasonable grasp on the big issue surrounding soil compaction that pesters growers using larger and heavier equipment.  Agronomic scientists and practioners from all over the globe, who study, evaluate compacted soils using penetrometers to assess the intensity or severity of dense soils is dealing with how to deal with the issue and how to minimize compactions effects. I know I continue to make strides to keep current and educate myself and the team here at Orthman regarding the limiting effects of soil compaction.  Just in the last week I have come across some little known facts that I want to place in front of you.

Where is it that soil density starts to impede (slow down) root elongation and penetration of the soil profile?  Impedance is observed in the range of 1.2 to 2.0MPa (174 to 290psi) of resistance measured by cone penetrometers.  Most plants we grow can easily create those kinds of force at the root tip when 70-85 days of age after emergence with adequate water resources being available.  A question though comes to the forefront, what about when the corn, soybean, grain sorghum, cotton or peanut plant roots are less than 40 days after emergence?  I say this because once roots encounter resistance in the soil above 2.0MPa, the root length can be decreased between 50 – 60% of normal growth and extension.  Certain species like alfalfa have high energy levels and turgid pressures

Fig. 1:   Heavy traffic prior to planting shows strong evidence of plant emergence that  has been reduced consistently by seeing the traffic pattern 

as well they are larger in diameter in the existing roots which I read in 10 different scientific papers provide the ability to penetrate more dense soils. When soil resistance exceeds 2.7MPa in maize root tip extension comes almost to a halt.  It has been measured in young maize (corn) plants in greenhouse potted plant studies that at the root tip there can be at 35-40 days after emergence from 40 to 140 psi (≤1.0MPa) of force to extend roots  into more dense soils to attain water and nutrients.  When roots cannot press the root tip through dense soils they will deform or become more plastic to change axial directions and seek an existing biopore (old root channel) to continue elongation.  Recent efforts in soil core studies with compacted layers and X-ray computer tomography technology, Nottingham University – U.K. determined that new roots will colonize (their term) old root biopores. Root tips are able to sense the change in oxygen levels from the pore and then grown downward many times co-mingling with other roots.

As we consider those kinds of values I believe we all should be taking a look in our fields before we pull the planters into the field next April for you folks in the Northern Hemisphere to gauge if any compaction is going to cause plant growth issues, water penetration and permeability of water into the deeper zones of your soil profiles.  Then roots will get there too. Soil strength (compaction) is a leading major cause of inadequate rooting. It affects nearly all soil bio-physico-chemical properties such as soil porosity, water conductivity, microbial populations can be reduced (especially aerobic bacteria), plant resistance to disease or insects, and nutrient availability.  Millions of acres (hectares) of agricultural lands are affected globally.

When root systems of corn for instance are retarded or held up to only explore and grow in the upper 20 – 24 inches of a soil profile, the water supply and nutrient supplies will be exhausted before the growing season is over.  Thusly limiting total biomass that needs to be developed and yields of grain or forage will suffer.

In your tillage management thinking, prior to planting, if you are seeing evidence of compacted soils with less than desired plant stands, water runoff or ponding, ruts from harvest or spray rigs, purple looking corn early last season, stunting, floppy corn early in season, use of tandem disks when it was wet – look into the Conservation Tillage method of Strip Till.  Compaction is almost every time man derived.  But it does not mean a moldboard plow or a massive ripper tool is the answer to fix what happened.  Check out us here at Orthman or a dealership that sells Orthman strip till implements, we would like to help, suggest and point your eyes in a direction of a very top notch Strip Tillage Systems approach.

From all of that in a quick summary, what is it that is new that we have not talked about before?

  1. Impedance(in soils) when observed in the range of 1.2 to 2.0MPa (174 to 290psi) roots are dramatically slowed

  2. Once roots encounter resistance in the soil above 2.0MPa, the root length can be decreased between 50 – 60% of normal growth and extension

  3. Recent efforts with compacted layers and X-ray computer tomography technology as roots attempt to penetrate compaction they can sense oxygen levels improve and change their tip growth direction to extend into a biopore, worm tunnel or old root cavity

I will keep you up-to-date with new items on this website as I read, come across or learn new material. Do not hesitate to contact any of us when you see on the Home page of this website via the Contact tab.

Northeast Community College – Norfolk, NE Looking to Cooperate with Orthman Mfg and AKRS John Deere

November 25th a small group all spaced out and wearing masks as though we were planning the next stagecoach robbery of the 1880’s – we met to discuss and evaluate for all parties (AKRS John Deere, Orthman Mfg and NECC) a new venture in how strip till is a viable option for advanced precision placement of dry fertilizer products on a section of the NECC farm.  Numerous other partners are working with the college to study new technology from Population of soybeans SmartFirmer add-ons to emergence studies of corn and soybeans to the Soil Health Project.  Seed companies, Fertilizer distributors, implement representatives, SARE, USDA-NRCS all have been involved in the 2020 Applied Field efforts of research to educate and inform students and members of the larger community of NE Nebraska. Looks like many will return for 2021.

Newest addition for the Agricultural Center at NECC-Norfolk, NE

We at Orthman and AKRS-John Deere are excited to be part of what can happen for the entire Agriculture community and students that attend NECC.

The image to the left is still under construction and partially in use as of November 2020.

It is Orthman and AKRS-John Deere’s hope to work with the farm manager at NECC to study some issues of whether compaction with large frame rubber tired 8R series tractors and 8RX track tractors is better, worse or in-between.  Along with that we will be strip tilling with the tried and true Orthman 1tRIPr and placing dry fertilizer precisely under the soil surface to look at efficiency, proper feeding of the corn root system, and potential yield.  This will be compared to a more standard method of dry broadcast.  Our hope is to communicate with the Soil Health Partnership folks as well.

Keep coming back to this website for updates as we move into 2021 with the eager team at NECC.

2020 Orthman Post Harvest Exploration of Roots Enhanced by the Strip Till System

Today I am offering you a look at how well the roots of the hybrid we strip tilled in fertility two-three weeks prior to planting back in early April of this year [2020].  This information and root map is on the Orthman coordinated approach at the McNaught farm north and east of Polk, Nebraska in some beautiful loess derived soils.

I want to describe the root system in regards to what features are enhanced with our (Orthman Mfg) approach to foundational work in the upper portions of the soil profile.  Alleviating compaction, developing a seedbed and placing an initial balanced, nutritional dinner plate of goodies in the soil for the young plant is all part and parcel of this approach.  We want growers to set up their crop for reaching the intended farmers goals.  Yes there are those that shoot for the 300 bushel club, many details have to work just so – one being climatic factors of rain, plenty of sunlight (2020 was good for that), no big winds or hail.  There is yes the concept of hybrid selection.  Not all hybrids of corn will magically excel with Strip-Till.  However knowing more and more about how corn responds in the environment we create with the Strip Till approach can provide some great yields that make the grower return on his investment and – profit.

To your left is the root profile of a Pioneer hybrid 1185Q we planted on April 29th at 30,000 seeds per acre with a final population of 29,640.  The depth of the soil profile is numbered on the right side of the Y axis (vertical). Then on the left side of that vertical axis is the quadrant depths of dividing up the root profile by volume in quartiles. In volume the root system was 65% 0-14 inches, 20% 14-27 inches, 10% 27-48 inches and 5% to the depth of 70 inches.  All of this was excavated by us with a small TrackHoe provided by our good cooperating John Deere folks, AKRS in Osceola, NE.  This view of the the profile details where the first 65% of the roots take up volume, absorb water and nutrients and then the next 20% and so on.  The dominant 95% of the root profile extended to 48 inches – that is a fantastic root system.  We calculated the root-soil volume for this hybrid to be 6,090 cubic inches of soil explored by roots.  All of this better evaluates from our expertise in Soils and Agronomy here at Orthman Mfg what changes a Strip Till system does to growing big corn and better yields.  I have been engaged in observing soil-root pits post-harvest usually every year for over 24 years with USDA-NRCS and now 14 years for Orthman, some 1745 root pits.   For those of you wanting to know, this hybrid tipped the scales at 60.5lbs/bushel and 256.5 bu/acre (and that was with some percentage of wind damage that caused GreenSnap in July).

An important feature from this root dig folks, is that we see a better profile of the underground root system with Strip Tillage and proper below ground placement of fertility products.  We also counted the number of roots in the root crown to be 50 out of the potential of 60-62 roots per plant.  That helps in the overall yield potential at  reaching 83% of the maximum root number growth per plant.  Since 98% of the nutrients are brought into the plant via the root system taking it from the soil solution and the great relationship of bacteria in the soil living on the root as well as mycorrhizal fungi symbiotically feeding its host – the corn roots in the upper 10-12 inches. This all makes what you plant seeds for come to the 100 fold and more multiplication factor of one seed become reality.  Whether you consider Direct Seeding or Multiple pass Tillage or Strip Till then plant as what you see is best for you – we desire all to see what Orthman Manufacturing, Inc does to educate, inform and cooperate in on-farm studies with others in the Ag Industry to improve the farmers lot in life.  Our cooperators; AKRS John Deere, SureFire Ag,  Nutrien, North Forty Seed are all associated with us to offer a scientific approach to producers and see the benefits by doing it joining hands and efforts.

My questions to any of you as you read down this far and gazed at the root profile; do you know your rooting profile by hybrids you plant in your soils?  Does it seem to provide you in this information that top performance comes from better management practices in your tillage, your fertility program, your management of water either rainfall or irrigation? Did you place nutrients not just Nitrogen below the growing plant wisely?  If that has not what you’re experiencing presently wherever you till soils, we sure would like to engage with you, offer our expertise, our skills from our Territory Sales Managers as well as my own, and our strong built tillage tools now since 1965 to move the economic yield needle for you.

You can reach us at our email addresses located on the Home Page of this site under the Contact Us tab. As the leader nationally and internationally in Strip Tillage we really want to provide up-to-date resources for all to go the next steps in being the best manager of your soils and water resources that get solid yields every year.  Our partners that I mentioned in the 4th paragraph are of that same mindset folks.  We want to Get To Work For You. 

Orthman Corn Research – Yield per Cubic Inch of soil that had roots .. A Different Way to Consider Efficiency

Just this last week (10/26/2020 – 10/30/2020) some of us Orthman were back doing some final work in the field to identify and quantify the root zone that provided us the yields we obtained even with 30-35% GreenSnap problems that plagued us from mid-July until harvest.  Insurance soothed some of that issue that is for sure.

So Pat and I got a small John Deere TracHoe from AKRS in Osceola, NE and dug some pits that we had to go deep to find the total extension of the roots down in the soil profile.  Our discovery was a pleasant outcome, not a surprise to me the “Soil Badger” at all.  Along with that we did some calculations to further express what the yields were in regard to number of bushels per square inch of the soil profile that had roots which we exposed.  Look in the small table below.

 As you look at this table we are determining did the soil profile both efficiently and effectively grow a crop that says it was a top producing hybrid plus – a corn crop that performed very well with the water available.

Now consider the rainfall and water that came via irrigation in the next table below as to efficiency and effectively putting kernels on the cob.


A bit more of a standard method to consider what each inch of moisture accomplished in the manner of efficiency and use of water.  Do remember a larger root system and rootzone to attain that moisture has a lot to do with what is the outcome in the way of yield.
So at Orthman we are going to look at what the tillage  tool does, how can we influence and create a better root zone for your crop to meet your expectations.  Another feature we can mention here; the first hybrid we planted and nutured was 1082, the roots went to 72 inches deep (that is down there folks).  The 1108 hybrid is what we planted for the majority of the farm and across the large 23 acre starter trial plot; the corn to use a phrase – drilled down 59 inches and the 1185 a new hybrid in the Pioneer hybrid trial plots went 70 inches deep.  Those extra inches of depth and how much of the root system we observed below 42 inches has a great deal with how they eventually yielded from those extra 30 inches of soil profile.

With Strip-Till providing a medium that grows bigger and better root systems and better placement of the pre-plant fertility – folks those items are part of the entire equation to make your corn yield as would like it to.  Having very deep soils (>60inches) helps a great deal and we know not everyone has that going for them in their fields.  Soils with high water holding capacity are also incredibly important, which the soils on the McNaught Farm do offer – 2.2 inches available per foot of soil root zone.  Everything considered in this idea of soil management and efficiency of water to a bushel of grain going into the bin today can make a grower scratch his/her head.  We like you to break it down to what your fields offer for you.  Todays growers, you folks understand that per pound of Nitrogen you want yield, per inch of water applied and what comes from rainfall all has to be part of what makes a crop and what makes sense in the way of profitability.

Here at Orthman our Territory Reps are very open to discussing this with you as am I the Agronomist for Orthman because we know as the leader in Strip Till we cannot sit back.  Offering different ways to consider what goes on with you at the Farmgate and when you go over your results of the 2020 yield picture – we are open to talking about the system and how it all works for YOU!


2020 Harvest Results from the Orthman-McNaught Farm – UPDATE and Thanks


The past few days I have been pouring over the corn yield data we obtained with the Deere S770 combine during the week of October 5-8.  I am waiting for approval from all our partners before I release this data and observations/conclusions.  Most likely end of next week folks. What I can tell you in this short update that across the farm the two Pioneer varieties we used did quite well with the management program of tillage-planting-irrigation-fertility-fungicide-herbicide and doing well to be timely according to the plant physiological stages.  Yes that was a mouthful, albeit so important for you to realize timing with corn is what allows any of us to tip the scale to have real solid yields that make money.  The entire farm average was 231.5 bushels per acre with the corn moisture running between 16 and 18.2% and 60-61 lb per bushel.

2020 Harvest

I must provide you with a caveat, the field was hurt by a down-blasting wind back in July that caused 30-35% ‘Greensnap’ damage just one node above the ear placement on the stalk.  Local observers clocked the wind speed on that evening of 60-65+mph. It was not that severe across the entire farm but two fairly large spots in a transect/swath from northeast to southwest was more than enough.  Yes it was disappointing and on the day after – deflating to say the least.  What we did see (a peek into what is coming) the yields where the wind damage was less than (4%) we were 269 bu/acre and the low was 203bu/acre.


We want to thank AKRS John Deere organization for being good with getting us the equipment of the corn head and S770 right on time and being there to aid and support from the April strip tilling and fertilizing to hauling it away.

We are very thankful to the team with Nutrien and all their participation as well as lending a hand nearly every week throughout the season – tissue sampling, soil sampling, watching over the crop for bug issues or disease, super job men!

North Forty Seed Co. was right with us all the way and Nick Hatfield was always helpful giving us information about the two hybrids we selected along with what was in the Variety strip trial that faced Road F.  I will say this, growers keep your Seedsman’s phone number handy when you work with his/her hybrids – they are a great resource as they work with you on your management plan.  That is not to rip on him/her but to gain their knowledge and information is the kind of relationship I am speaking of. Nick is just that kind of professional.

All of us thank the young high schoolers from High Plains FFA and Cross County FFA for pitching in when we asked  them to , to collect pages and pages of growth data and gaining “hands-on” agronomics in the first three months of the growing season.  Then some were able to come out for harvest.  Nearly everyone of the Vo-Ag students from both schools attended the August 26th field day and exhibition at the McNaught Farm.  Five of these sharp young folks  gave a knowledgeable talk in front of the 100+ folks on a large screen TV that Orthman Mfg. team brought to serve lunch and use the audio-video equipment to provide a great day for all.  I as the scientist for Orthman am incredibly proud of them.

I do sincerely thank our good friends and supporters at SureFire Ag who provided us the top-notch equipment to deliver the fertilizer products from April’s strip tilling pass to planting to cultivating and ditching with more nutrients.  Your equipment worked flawlessly, gave us a confidence that we were putting on the products at the right amounts, in the right location and on time.  When we needed him Mark Griffith he was there and the guys back in Atwood on the help line – Kudos!  When carrying out replicated studies we knew that SureFire Ag was our set of tools to do the job.  The results will show!

A shout of thanks to Randy Harliss there in Polk, Nebraska who sprayed for us.  We really appreciate you and your guys when we needed fuel and materials to spray for weeds and all.

As the science guy who can be blamed for a ton of comments, questions and stupid looks of why in tarnation we gotta do… I thank Pat McNaught for putting up with my quirks, science-guy geekness, wanting it just so, some nagging, a starter trial of 23 acres which was replicated/randomized four times, digging holes, pulling ears (cause of maybe the reduced yields), walking in and out of the field a zillion times.  Your patience and love of the farm is gold with me sir. For Doug Peterson all your being there for a 61 different reasons we asked of you – Thank You.  To Justin, Pat’s and my supervisor; a big Thank you for being an advisor, a soundboard, giving us time and the go-ahead to pursue this research work, stressing we do the field event and the exposure you knew would be good for Orthman. To our owner of the company, John McCoy, we set out to prove several details about Strip Till by the tool that tills in thousands of fields and the 1tRIPr works  around the globe and we did them sir.  When I get the more robust report done that details the season long comings/goings cleared and report by times we looked at crop responses you will see the solid positive results. We thank you for trusting us to expose the Orthman Team as a company “Doing it Right” and a “Hard Act to Follow”.  Many thanks to my cohorts who came for the field event jumping in and doing so much; Tim East, Gary Mohr, Justin Cross, Heath Carlton  — Many Thanks guys!

Do watch now for what will come from the yields soon.

CORRECTED — Orthman and High Plains Vo-Ag Harvest is Just Completed!

Our first of several results to you is on paper and ready to re-report. Just recently (10-5 to 10-9) we with AKRS Equipment providing us a S770 combine (leased) harvested the Vo-Ag study of placing pre-plant nutrients with two offsets to provide growers an up close and personal look at what corn does and the importance of being right on the money with fertility placement and where the seed sits above the nutrient package.  So two weeks prior to planting back in April we strip tilled in a package of N-P-K & S at a depth of 6.5 inches.  then Pat bumped the GPS to offset by 4 inches and then 8 inches where the plant would grow and develop it’s root system.  We did 48 rows of each approach of a Dekalb 110 RMD variety.

In the corrected table to your left; the O inches details that we planted the seed directly above the nutrients we placed with the Orthman 1tRIPr in early April; the 4 inches offset tells us what it is when we miss the mark and seed is four inches to the right or the left of the nutrients and what kind of results are. Then the 8 inch offset is when seed is 8 inches off from being directly over the top of the nutrition below by 6.5 inches.  I had to correct the table because I had the offset plot data sets west to east with the 8 inch offset numbers as the O inch offset, as well a planting blank spot which needed to be accounted for, and then I had not corrected for the moisture percentage, oh my faux paux!!  I apologize.

What do you see in these numbers?  Yield is down by 5 bu/acre in the 4 inches and 8 bushel/acre down from where the seed and nutrition line up perfectly.  Okay that is fine and dandy.  What can a person have as a Take Away from this field study?  Accuracy pays for itself first off.  A $3.60/bu corn that is an improvement of $28.80/acre when 8 inches off.  If a grower is not using GPS guidance by now and wandering around the row and where you placed a band of nutrition, RTK guidance can and will be a good investment, for the long run.  Placing nutrition is valuable by offering you accuracy and food for the plant to run into since a corn root system does not go hunting for that expensive fertilizer, it has to run into it.  A good RTK system is around $25,000 give or take.  In order to pay for a system connected and ready to roll when you go to the field in one year it would take 5 – 128 acre pivot fields of corn to make it work the first year.  Or 3 pivots over a two year period.  Corn prices step up, it could be fewer acres.  Take the wear and tear off the planter driver, how this can translate to your other tools you pull through the field and this takes fewer acres even more.  This year the plots we had were 48 rows wide by 650 to 679 feet in length due to the shape of the field.  Next year (2021) will be soybeans and a different set of studies.

All season long we watched the corn in the three plots exhibit growth differences, population and time to get to Black Layer.  The 4 inch and 8 inch offset was always further behind where we planted right over the top of the placed nutrients.  The young people under the lead of Mr. Tom Hofmann at the Polk High School watched and measured what was going on and came out to be part of the harvest since they get a portion of the proceeds to fund many of their Vo-Ag/FFA projects in the classroom and shop.  The relationship Orthman Manufacturing has with these young folks in the FFA program is super and we thoroughly enjoy working with them all growing season and teaching agronomic and economic principles.

Follow Up on the recent post dealing with 6 items of Compaction

Digging to give you the best information regarding soils as I know how.

Recently I wrote some important points to consider when you are dealing with compaction not only in the fall but the springtime.  I have been chasing issues growers have found to be pesky and reoccurring since the era of 1981.  I am here to tell you I have caught up with soil compaction and have been able to spot it from a highway at 65mph. Sometimes it is whoa and stop to get out, walk across a fence and stick a probe or spade in the ground to see what is the intensity of the problem.  If the grower stops by we get into a great conversation almost everytime.

So I am reading this article in the Indiana Prairie Farmer which I am going to quote from what this man David Nanda says. He is director of genetics for Seed Genetics Direct, sponsor of Corn Watch ’20.

The article begins by Tom Bechman: Dave Nanda insisted on this picture showing the remnants of boot prints in the Corn Watch ’20 field in August. This year we implemented an emergence plot to study differences in corn plants based on when they emerge. The boot prints were made when I placed flags in muddy soil after a heavy rain on the first day corn decided to emerge. If the first plants aren’t flagged when they emerge, it defeats the purpose of tracking emergence until all plants come up.

They were 6 inches deep in a few places, and they’re still hefty prints,” Nanda says. He is director of genetics for Seed Genetics Direct.

I wanted to document that they were still there in August because it shows that once soil is compacted, the compaction doesn’t go away quickly,” Nanda says. “And it doesn’t matter if soil compaction is created by a 250-pound man or a tractor weighing 10 tons or the planter disc forming the sidewall. Once it’s there, the impact on the soil can continue for a long time.”

I, Mike Petersen, have been saying for nigh on 40 years what comes next from this person Dave Nanda.

As long as there is ample moisture, the soil compaction won’t likely impact those plants more than it already has during early-season stress,” Nanda says. “Visible differences might occur if it turns dry again.”  How-em-ever folks, too many farmers in the latitudes north of the 38th degree parallel feel that the soils will freeze and thaw a few times and all will be fine.  Oh brother where art though? To quote a funny movie from a few years back…  No such thing.  We are wanting more power to pull large disk-rippers (400 to 620hp tractors), 1000 to 1500 bushel grain carts, silage trucks for those who cut big semi-loads of corn silage, 13 shank subsoil tools, big red, blue or green disk-chisel implements over 35 ft wide and go 6 mph with bounce in too moist of soils and install compaction. Or, those 36 to 48 row planters when soil conditions are wet and the thought process “we gotta go”.  Oh my!  Do I understand? Yes, Maybe and then No.

Tom Bechman writes further into the article; “When soil compaction was first recognized as an issue in the 1980s, many people assumed that freeze and thaw cycles would correct it over time. The same university studies indicate that while these cycles can eventually help break down compacted layers, they typically don’t help as quickly or as much as most people originally suspected. Even in locations where there are normally several freeze and thaw cycles during the winter, soil compaction can persist over time.”  I am quite pleased to see this article written and to bring a portion of it to you.  You can go on-line and read it via this hyperlink —

I am glad to hear others saying this.  Standout researchers up north near Morris, Minnesota – yes that is cold Minnesota where it freezes up tight many winters – stated it takes 14 cycles of freeze-thaw to break compaction up by ice crystals and wedges.  But folks, that may happen only in the surface two inches (5 cm).  What about 7 to 11 inches deep?  Once for the total thaw-out.

What I am suggesting here?  When you see ragged ups and downs in your corn or soybean heights, or intervals of tracks early on where the corn is stunted or discolored with purple tinted leaves or later two rows spaced 60 to 90 inches apart that are shorter, smaller leafed and roll in the midday sun – the 800 pound compaction gorilla has come to stay.  Do check it out, see how extensive it is, is it in the entire field of just on the turn row ends?  How deep and thick?  Right now with fall harvest time in front of you the proof will be in the combine and trailer to haul it to market.  Watch your mapping tools of that screen in your combine and the results of the yields – it will be evident or not.

We at Orthman Manufacturing study the compaction issue; because we have a lineup of Territory Rep’s to explain and digest the conditions, we can help you wade into what comes next in the alleviation of soil compaction.  Do not just go get the subsoil tool and go to ripping the silly out of every acre at 15 inches deep – please!  Call or contact me if you like.  As a scientist that has been in the soil trenches and digging about in about every state of the Union I am happy to offer clues and suggestions.  Do not hesitate to go to the tab CONTACT US on the home page of this site and visit with any of us.