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Alabama Forages

Aeration: Should you aerate your pastures for improved forage production? Does it pay to aerate?

Increased fertilizer costs and difficult weather have led to an increased interest in pasture aeration. Two perceived benefits of aeration are increased water infiltration due to thatch build up and decreased soil compaction caused from animal and tractor traffic. Thatch is rarely a problem in Alabama, and it is difficult to tell by "just looking" if your soil is compacted. The easiest, most effective way to determine if your soil is compacted is by using a soil compaction tester (cone penetrometer).

Aeration equipment has been designed to penetrate the soil and decrease soil compaction in the upper soil surface. These machines typically work in the top few inches of the soil and would not provide benefit to soils with compacted plow pans or natural hardpans. Furthermore, Alabama research has shown that bahiagrass roots are very effective in penetrating these deeper hardpans, improving water infiltration to crop roots and improving forage yields.

Research projects from Mississippi, Tennessee, and Oklahoma found that aeration had little to no effect on forage yields of bahiagrass, bermudagrass, and tall fescue. Mississippi State research on bahiagrass pasture and bermudagrass hay fields were tested in multiple locations and at varying times throughout the year and found no effect on soil penetration resistance, moisture content, or forage yield. University of Tennessee researchers evaluated tall fescue yields and found virtually no difference between aerated and non-aerated areas. Research in eastern Oklahoma found little effect on bermudagrass pasture yield.

Soil aerators are expensive to purchase and expensive to use. Many of the aforementioned research projects, as well as a project in Alabama, found that the costs of aeration exceeded the value of any potential extra forage produced. In most situations, aeration is unlikely to be of economic benefit.

We must remember that forage growth is often limited by a number of factors, and soil compaction is rarely the main culprit in our decreased yields. Compaction in the top few inches of the soil is usually broken up naturally by root growth and changes in weather. Typically the best approach is to focus on soil fertility, pest control, and utilizing summer forage species to improve production.

*Prepared by Jennifer M. Johnson, Ph.D, Extension Agronomist, Alabama Cooperative Extension System