Understanding Soil Compaction with Dr. Haly Neely


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Contact Information:

Contact Dr. Haly Neely via email at h.neely@wsu.edu and follow her on Twitter @HalyinPullman

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Episode Transcription:

Drew Lyon: Hello. Welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. In each episode, I speak with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production. If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat podcast do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app and leave us a review while you’re there so others can find the show too.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Dr. Haly Neely. Haly is a new faculty member in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at WSU in spatial soil and water management. She earned her Ph.D. in soil physics from Texas A&M University in 2014. And was a soil science faculty member there before moving back to Pullman in 2019. Haly received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from WSU and grew up in Waitsburg, Washington. Her research program focuses on site-specific soil management, including soil compaction and crop stress. She also teaches undergraduate precision agriculture. Haly was recently awarded the New Innovator in Food and Agriculture Research Award from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. The award will fund research to study soil compaction across Washington State in multiple crops including wheat, potatoes, berries, and pasture systems. Hello, Haly.

Dr. Haly Neely: Hi, Drew. Thanks for having me.

Drew Lyon: Well, first of all, congratulations on the rather prestigious award, the New Innovator in Food and Agriculture Research Award.

Dr. Haly Neely: Thank you, thank you.

Drew Lyon: That’s a nice thing to have in your cap, a feather in your cap, this early in your career.

Dr. Haly Neely: Oh, absolutely.

Drew Lyon: What got you interested in studying soil compaction?

Dr. Haly Neely: When I was in Texas, I was approached by a group of growers there who were concerned about the new heavier harvesting equipment that was becoming more popular. And they were concerned that maybe that increased compaction was limiting their root growth, maybe lowering their yields. So that’s kind of how I got started into it. And then as the more systems I looked at, the more it seems to be an underreported and somewhat unseen problem almost across the whole country.

Drew Lyon: Every once in a while I’ll run into it on something I’m working on. So what causes soil compaction?

Dr. Haly Neely: So it’s mostly driven by the heavy machinery that we have nowadays. I mean, you know, 50 years ago, tractors were nowhere near the size that they are now. More tillage, also. As you decrease the organic matter, you can also increase your compaction, driving on wet soils. So all those kinds of things that we do day to day in agriculture can really start to increase your compaction. And again, it’s nothing that you can readily see with your eyes because it, you know, down in the subsoil.

Drew Lyon: I know I’ve done a few studies on soil compaction. Had a penetrometer.

Dr. Haly Neely: Yes.

Drew Lyon: And, boy, that was kind of difficult to really get consistent measures on, because it kind of depended on how much moisture was in the soil at the time and how much you pushed on it.

Dr. Haly Neely: Oh, absolutely. And that’s one of the great things about this project. So I’m partnering with Dr. Yugeng Ge. He’s at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. And Cristine Morgan, Dr. Cristine Morgan, Soil Health Institute. And several people here at WSU. But what Dr. Ge has done is he — as Dr. Morgan as well — is they have made a penetrometer that is hydraulically driven. So you don’t have to have a person involved with it anymore. There’s also visible near-infrared sensing technology in the penetrometer. And you just shine a visible or near-infrared light on the soil, and when it bounces back to the sensor, you can measure clay content and water content. Because like you said, water content can influence how hard you have to push your penetrometer into the soil. So with these advances in new sensor technology, we can actually get really consistent measurements of soil compaction in a fairly rapid way. So now we can actually start to map soil compaction in three dimensions across whole fields. So that’s a major innovation and a huge part of this proposal. And hopefully we can start moving forward with these new tools.

Drew Lyon: That’s very interesting. I guess I went and did my soil compaction work a few decades a little too early. [ Haly laughs ] It sounds like you’re going to have a much better handle on it than I was able to. What impact does soil compaction have on things like soil health and crop yield?

Dr. Haly Neely: So soil compaction really influences almost every aspect of the soil. So as your soil becomes more compacted and it pushes those little particles closer together, water can infiltrate. So when the rain falls on your soil, it doesn’t flow in and soak in nice, it can run off to another location in your field. Really limits the root growth. And if the roots can’t grow down and get those nutrients in the subsoil, it limits your ability for nutrient use efficiency. It limits your nutrient use efficiency. You know, even things like microbes need water and air. And if you have a lot of compaction, then it’s actually even going to reduce your microbial communities. So there’s really not an aspect of the plant that is not impacted from soil compaction. We also have Dr. Karen Sanguinet is on the project as well, and she is going to be measuring the impact of compaction on root growth in several of these systems to really quantify how these different degrees of compaction, the severity of compaction, limits that root growth.

Drew Lyon: Okay. I’ve seen different ways of tacking compact soil — tillage, you know, deep ripping.

Dr. Haly Neely: Of course, yes.

Drew Lyon: A lot of people want to try crops that supposedly have a nice strong taproot to get down through there. But I’ve seen sunflower roots go down hit that compaction zone and just go sideways [ Haly laughs ] until somewhere they can find a way down. Is using plants better than not, than tillage? Or does it all — I suppose it depends. But what are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Haly Neely: So that’s actually part of the project as well. So we’re also partnering with Aaron Esser is going to help us run some on-farm demo trials to try to actually answer that very question. Because, yes, we’ve had deep rippers for a long time. Some people say they’re not that effective. And yes, sunflowers are super common, you know, biological control. But like you said — in Texas, we would call that a J-root. I think here it’s called a hook root. Where it just grows along that compacted layer. But, you know, the big problem we had with trying to find a solution to compaction is, if you can’t measure the compaction, then you can’t actually evaluate any new technology or method or crop to break up those compaction layers. So that will be a part of this. And we’ll have some on-farm demos. We’ll have some educational materials we’ll develop. And then hopefully, you know, get some of the ag engineers involved to start to develop some better ways of managing compaction because now we can actually measure it.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So you kind of answered, partially answered, my next question, which is: Are there going to be any outreach or extension efforts involved with this project?

Dr. Haly Neely: Yes. A big part of the project — because even if we do a great job measuring compaction and linking it to soil health indicators and we do a great job with our models, I mean, if we don’t get it into the hands of actual growers, then it’s not going to be an effective or successful study. So outreach is a huge component of this project.

Drew Lyon: Do you know where that outreach will happen, say a website or something? Or is that still to be determined?

Dr. Haly Neely: It’s still to be determined. I mean, everybody seems like has a website nowadays. So of course, we’ll try to use some social media. I’m here on your podcast today to start talking about it. And, you know, what they kind of will say or what researchers would say is that the grower-to-grower network is probably the best way to start spreading a lot of this information. So by having our demo trials on actual grower fields and then bringing other growers there to have field days and that kind of outreach I think can make a big impact.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Well, if you develop or when you develop a website, we’ll get that into the show notes.

Dr. Haly Neely: Yes, perfect.

Drew Lyon: So our growers can go find that. So all right, anything else you want to tell us about this new project? It sounds like it’s a great collaboration across universities and even within WSU between extension, research. So something I think should bear real fruit.

Dr. Haly Neely: Oh, I hope so. I’m so excited to get started on this project here at WSU and, you know, really kind of getting into some of the issues that affect local growers. And hopefully, in the next couple months, I can start reaching out and actually partnering with other growers. Because most of this research will take place on farmer fields. So if anybody wants to volunteer their farm, just please look in the show notes for my contact information and give me a shout.

Drew Lyon: Very good. Thank you very much, Haly.

Dr. Haly Neely: Thank you so much.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. If you have questions or topics, you’d like to hear on future episodes please email me at drew.lyon — that’s lyon@wsu.edu –(drew.lyon@wsu.edu). You can find us online at smallgrains.wsu.edu and on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.