Aeration Tillage Effects on Hay Yield and Soil Health in Clay Soils

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2014: $14,986.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2017
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Jeffrey Carter
UVM Extension
Rico Balzano
Little Lake Orchard

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: general hay and forage crops, grass (misc. perennial), hay


  • Animal Production: feed/forage
  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: extension, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns
  • Production Systems: general crop production
  • Soil Management: soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    Permanent hay fields can be a reliable source of income for farmers if kept productive over time. Compaction causing anaerobic conditions and poor water infiltration is the number one reason hay field productivity declines. Aerator machines that poke slots into the soil have long been used to alleviate surface soil compaction. However, clear data on yields and long term viability of permanent hay fields as a result of consistent use of an aerator on clay soil does not exist. The Champlain Valley Crop, Soil, & Pasture Team will investigate the potential benefits of regular and consistent aerator use on permanent hay fields. UVM Extension Agronomy Outreach Professionals will collaborate with two different farmers to perform field trials, collect data and demonstrate practices to other farmers in the Champlain Valley. Trials will focus on aerator machine use versus no use (control) on one farm, and a novel double axle aerator machine versus a single axle aerator machine versus no use (control) on the other farm. We will utilize sound research methods to collect data that is usable and applicable to farmers in the Champlain basin. Our team has had great success recently coordinating the aerator rental program in conjunction with the Otter Creek Natural Resources Conservation District. We have many interested farmers, but no hard evidence to help promote the practice. We feel we can increase the adoption of this practice and help reduce heavy tillage with a well-placed demonstration that other farmers can look at. Information will be shared widely through field days, newsletters, fact sheets and our website.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Surface compaction of clay soils is a difficult problem to solve. Aerator machines have been shown to alleviate compaction in the top 4 to 6 inches, allowing air to penetrate into the root zone and water to more quickly infiltrate. The goal of this project is to show that aerator machines can sufficiently alleviate and/or prevent compaction form forming so as to maintain adequate to high production levels in permanent hay fields without the need for renewal tillage and reseeding. This will be done by demonstrating aerator machine use in side by side trials. Aeration will be done at the beginning of the season and after each cut of hay on the strips receiving the aeration treatment. These strips will be compared to strips receiving no aeration to simulate a conventional hayfield. Also, a novel double axle aerator will be evaluated against a standard single axle machine and to no aeration to determine the effectiveness of this new design. All the test strips will be evaluated for forage yield and quality, species mix, crop enterprise partial budget and soil health. Soil health will be determined by measuring water infiltration, biological activity (Solvita test), and demonstrating the use of the Cornell Soil Health Test. All results will be used to determine the overall benefit of aerating permanent hay fields.

    Two cooperator farms agree to provide land, equipment and labor to establish field trials on their farms for demonstration to other farmers and data collection on aerator tillage machine plots. The aerator machine use will be supported by the use of farmer owned machines: Doug Gould owns an 11 foot Gen-Till and Huestis Farm Supply owns one 10 foot double-axel Aerway and one 15 foot single axel Aerway. These famers have used their aerator machines very consistently in the past and believe in the benefits they provide. For this project two farmers will identify hay fields suitable for a replicated field trial to use the aerator machines on strips next to control strips that receive no aeration. Doug Gould will apply two different rates of fertilizer to the trial at his farm to explore the effects of aeration on fertilizer applications. Henry Lawton will compare aeration by a conventional single axel aerator machine to aeration by a newly designed double axel aerator machine to explore the differences in equipment configurations. UVM Extension Agronomy Outreach Professionals and a research field technician will team up with two cooperating farmers to support design, implementation, monitoring and data collection of the field trials. Data measurements include a pre-trial UVM Agricultural & Environmental Testing Lab soil test to determine if there is any in-field variability. A forage analysis will be done after each cut of hay to measure quality and determine dry matter yields. At the end of the trial, Cornell Soil health tests will be done all plots as a measure of aeration on soil health. Solvita CO2 tests will be done to measure differences in biological activity and water infiltration tests will be done to determine permeability between aerated and non-aerated strips.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.