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Soil structure is determined by how individual soil granules clump or bind together and aggregate, and therefore, the arrangement of soil pores between them. Soil structure has a major influence on water and air movement, biological activity, root growth and seedling emergence.
Soil structure describes the arrangement of the solid parts of the soil and of the pore space located between them (Marshall & Holmes, 1979). The structure depends on what the soil developed from. The practices that influence soil structure will decline under most forms of cultivation—the associated mechanical mixing of the soil compacts and shears aggregates and fills pore spaces; it also exposes organic matter to a greater rate of decay and oxidation (Young & Young, 2001). A further consequence of continued cultivation and traffic is the development of compacted, impermeable layers or pans within the profile.
Soil structure decline under irrigation is usually related to the breakdown of aggregates and dispersion of clay material as a result of rapid wetting. This is particularly so if soils are sodic; that is, having a high exchangeable sodium percentage (ESP) of the cations attached to the clays. High sodium levels (compared to high calcium levels) cause particles to repel one another when wet and for the associated aggregates to disaggregate and disperse. The ESP will increase if irrigation causes salty water (even of low concentration) to gain access to the soil.
A wide range of practices are undertaken to preserve and improve soil structure. For example, the NSW Department of Land and Water Conservation, (1991) advocates: increasing organic content by incorporating pasture phases into cropping rotations; reducing or eliminating tillage and cultivation in cropping and pasture activities; avoiding soil disturbance during periods of excessive dry or wet when soils may accordingly tend to shatter or smear, and; ensuring sufficient ground cover to protect the soil from raindrop impact. In irrigated agriculture, it may be recommended to: apply gypsum (calcium sulfate) to displace sodium cations with calcium and so reduce ESP or sodicity; avoid rapid wetting, and; avoid disturbing soils when too wet or dry.
The benefits of improving soil structure for the growth of plants, particularly in an agricultural setting include: reduced erosion due to greater soil aggregate strength and decreased overland flow; improved root penetration and access to soil moisture and nutrients; improved emergence of seedlings due to reduced crusting of the surface and; greater water infiltration, retention and availability due to improved porosity.
It has been estimated that productivity from irrigated perennial horticulture could be increased by two to three times the present level by improving soil structure, because of the resulting access by plants to available soil water and nutrients (Cockroft & Olsson, 2000, cited in Land and Water Australia 2007). The NSW Department of Land and Water Conservation (1991) infers that in cropping systems, for every millimetre of rain that is able to infiltrate, as maximised by good soil structure, wheat yields can be increased by 10 kg/ha.
This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Government document "http://soils.usda.gov/technical/manual/contents/chapter3.html".