May 21, 2024

Is your soil ready for planting?

How to do a ribbon test to check soil readiness

Soil that is too wet to plant forms a ribbon when squeezed between your thumb and forefinger.

CHATHAM, Ill. — Determining if soil is fit to work each spring plays a large role in yield potential, according to agronomists at Pioneer.

Planting into wet soils can cause smearing of the seed furrow sidewall, compaction issues and open seed trenches. Compacted soil restricts root systems and often causes uneven emergence.

On the other hand, extremely dry soil is easily disturbed, increasing the potential loss of soil organic matter, topsoil and vital nutrients.

Evaluating each field for soil moisture conditions before starting fieldwork can set a crop up for a successful fall.

Try The Ribbon Test

The ribbon test is a simple but effective way to determine soil conditions. How do you do it?

1. Take a trowel and dig down 3 to 4 inches into the seed bed.

2. Grasp a handful of soil from the trowel and squeeze it firmly together with your hands.

3. Try to break apart the ball and assess how friable the soil is.

4. If the ball is easily broken down to its original crumb structure, the ground is fit to work.

5. The soil is not ready if a ribbon forms when squeezed between your thumb and forefinger, the ball of soil sticks together, the soil feels tacky, or water comes out of the ball when you squeeze it.

Soil conditions can change between the time the seedbed is prepared and planting begins. If soils become wet, drying time should be allotted.

Working fields as close to planting as possible can minimize the chance for conditions to change drastically, according to Pioneer.

“When possible, we want to think about planting during a warming trend,” said Matt Montgomery, Pioneer agronomist.

“We can’t do it all the time, but the more often we can, the better we set our fields up for uniform emergence, uniform stand and a healthier overall crop.”

Another trick to determine if your soil is ready to work: When you walk on a field before planting, your boots should not sink into the soil more than an inch.

Ideal seed beds are firm. A very loose seedbed will result in uneven emergence, poor nodal root establishment, potential for root lodging in summer storms and less root mass for periods of drought and lower yields.

In A Nutshell

• Evaluate fields for soil moisture conditions before starting any field work. Use the ribbon test to determine soil conditions and fitness.

• Determining when the soil is fit to work or plant in the spring is a key skill to growing high-yielding crops.

• Tillage and planting operations are best done when soils are dry enough in the top 3 to 4 inches of soil that they do not form a ribbon with normal compression forces from your hand.

Erica Quinlan

Erica Quinlan

Field Editor