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Treacherous Field Conditions in some Areas this Spring (05/07/20)

I have had numerous reports from central to eastern North Dakota of tractors/seeders/applicators becoming stuck in fields where the soil surface is dry and where the field it can easily be driven over by a pickup truck or an ATV.

I have had numerous reports from central to eastern North Dakota of tractors/seeders/applicators becoming stuck in fields where the soil surface is dry and where the field it can easily be driven over by a pickup truck or an ATV. Some of these conditions arise most springs because of ‘frost boils’. Frost boils are caused by pockets of soil ice not-yet thawed, which because there is little free water compared to the surrounding thawed soil attracts water and becomes a little like quicksand. This spring, there was hardly any deep ice in the soil, certainly not now, and these ‘soft spots’ are more numerous than normal and are appearing in places that are totally unexpected.

I believe that these spots are the result of high precipitation after September 1, 2019 to present (over 10 inches to present), so unless there was a cover crop on these acres (which was not common due to the wet conditions that made planting impossible) there has been nothing to use the water. The water is relatively near the surface at perhaps 2-3 feet, and because our soil is intermingled with veins of different textures due to their glacial drift nature, the water has moved sideways; in the central/west of the state it emerges as seeps in sidehills; in the east it ‘boils’ below the surface, making a positive pressure towards the surface, but not reaching it, making soils weak for trafficability in spots.

I wish there was some way to tell from looking where these areas are, but there is no way to know. Most farmers already know to keep another tractor handy with suitable safety tow ropes. But another tip is that once the field has been driven over, don’t drive over it in a different direction soon afterwards if possible. There was one report of an applicator finishing a quarter and then driving diagonally across the finished field to reach the next field, and then it got stuck. It may have found a spot that was missed when applying fertilizer initially, but it might also be a result of the disturbance of the soil ‘gel’. Geologists mention gel sometimes in papers on clays, and small particles. When these contain sufficient water, they act like a gel (think Jell-O - not an endorsement). But when these gels are disturbed by vibration, they liquify, losing their integrity and building structures can be compromised (Thank goodness there are no earthquakes in the RRV).

If going to the field for the first time, just be prepared and take whatever comfort there is in the knowledge that there will be many neighbors in the same unhappy state of getting stuck by the time fieldwork is complete.

 

Dave Franzen

Extension Soil Specialist

701-799-2565

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