Q&A With Seth Nagy

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There were some excellent questions that came into the Caldwell Extension Center this week. I’d like to share two with you. I hope you find these questions and answers helpful.

Question: What is soil compaction?

Answer: Un-compacted soil is made up of mineral particles like sand, silt, and clay, plus organic matter. The remaining half of the soil is called pore space. The pore space allows for air and water movement around the mineral particles. Pore space is required in order to have a healthy environment for plant roots and beneficial microorganisms and earthworms to break down plant residue into organic matter. Pore space is also required for good root growth, and it helps move water into soil rather than having it run off.

Compaction is most likely to occur with heavier soils. Heavy soils are soils that are comprised of larger amounts of clay and loam particles. Most of Caldwell County soils are heavy clay soils. Although heavy clay soils are more easily compacted, sandy soils can be compacted, too.

Soil compaction occurs when pore spaces in the soil are reduced. With enough compaction, air and water will not move freely in the soil, and plant roots cannot grow easily into the surrounding soil.

Tilling garden soils too much can create compacted soil. Too much tilling breaks up the small soil aggregates into single particles. The soil should have little clumps of particles that are bound together in small, pea-sized lumps. When tilling an area multiple times, those little aggregates are broken down. When the soil later gets wet, it does not allow the water to pass through. A mini-pond is created and when the soil finally dries, it resembles an alligator’s skin. This linear pattern of cracked soil does not let air or water in.

Working the soil when it is too wet also leads to compacted soil. Before tilling a garden or working up the soil, make sure the soil is not too wet. Before working in the garden in the spring, take a handful of soil and compress it into a ball. When gently poked, it should fall apart. If it does not, the soil is too wet. Wait until the soil crumbles to work in it.

If you have compacted soil in your garden or landscape beds, there are several things that can be done. First, resist the urge to routinely roto-till or cultivate the area. Instead, add organic matter in the form of mulch or compost. Hand-spade it into the top 3 to 6 inches of soil. For a vegetable garden, put 2 inches of compost on the soil surface and till in, and repeat for a total of 4 inches in a season.

Lawns can also become compacted. To reduce compaction, fescue lawns can be core aerated in the fall. A proper mowing height of 3.5 to 4 inches for fescue will also help reduce compaction. As well, proper fertilization will also promote good root growth and reduce soil compaction. Fescue can be fertilized three time per year, fertilize around Valentine’s Day, Labor Day, and Halloween.

I do think it is interesting to note that the vast majority of crop fields in Caldwell County and the piedmont of North Carolina are not plowed. The soil is not plowed because it compacts soil. In fact, for the last several years, fields that have not been plowed, as called no-till fields, have won the State crop yield contests for corn, soybeans, and wheat. Soil health is important for productive plants.

Question: Are chickens fed hormones? Is that how chickens grow so quickly?

Answer: No, chickens are not fed hormones. The impressive growth rates are accomplished by careful attention to diet (protein, vitamins, and minerals) and genetics.

Chicken production has come a long way in the last 90 years. In 1925, it took 12 weeks and 10 pounds of feed to produce a 2 ¼  pound bird. Today it takes 6 weeks to produce a 5 ¾ pound bird with only 10 pounds of feed.

That is an impressive improvement in production. In half the time, the birds are more than double in size with the same pounds of feed.

baby chicken

Modern chickens are an excellent source of high quality lean protein

However, keep in mind the feed better meets the birds’ nutritional needs. The birds have also been selected and bred for improved growth.

If hormones were in the feed or water, it would not have an effect on the birds. The hormones would have to be injected to have a physiological effect on the birds. Also, hormones in the feed would be a violation with the Food and Drug Administration.

For answers to your agricultural questions, call the Caldwell County Extension Center at 828-757-1290 or visit us online anytime at https://caldwell.ces.ncsu.edu.