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). It is dependent on: what the soil developed from; the environmental conditions under which the soil formed; the clay present, the organic materials present; and the recent history of management.
Charman & Murphy (1998) consider soil to be of good structure, from an agricultural perspective, when it is of “an aggregated, low density/high porosity condition”. However, strict definition of good, from either an agricultural or catchment perspective, is not straight forward. We can say though that a well structured soil will enable robust biological activity by readily accepting, storing, and transmitting water, gases, nutrients, and energy; and by providing adequate and suitable surfaces and space for life and biochemical exchanges.
Aggregation of primary soil particles is a critical determinant of soil structure. Clay colloids - minute particles (diameters smaller than 2 micrometres) play a significant role in aggregation between the full range of soil particles (Leeper & Uren, 1993). Adhesion between particles is via electrostatic force ( flocculation) or cementing substances, such as organic matter and minerals.
Other factors important in considering soil structure are: the stability of aggregates under wetting and drying conditions; the stability of aggregates to physical disturbance; the fabric and nature of the aggregates; and the profile form (referring to variation in the layers throughout the soil profile).
Natural aggregates that can be clearly seen in the field are called peds. Clods, on the other hand, are aggregates that are broken into shape by artificial actions such as tillage. The surfaces of peds persist through cycles of wetting and drying in place. Commonly, the surface of the ped and its interior differ as to composition or organization, or both, because of soil development. Earthy clods and fragments stand in contrast to peds, for which soil forming processes exert weak or no control on the boundaries. Clay soils are just awesome if you want high yields but you need to be prepared to work hard. Therefore the inputs and costs will be high.
Structure is very important since (along with soil texture) it affects the porosity of the soil. A dense structure will greatly reduce the amount of air and water than can move freely through the soil. Also, it will affect the plant's ability to propagate roots through the soil. The implications for Soil health are clear.
There are five major classes of structure seen in soils: platy, prismatic, columnar, granular, and blocky. There are also structureless conditions. Some soils have simple structure, each unit being an entity without component smaller units. Others have compound structure, in which large units are composed of smaller units separated by persistent planes of weakness.
In platy structure, the units are flat and platelike. They are generally oriented horizontally. A special form, lenticular platy structure, is recognized for plates that are thickest in the middle and thin toward the edges. Platy structure is usually found in subsurface soils that have been subject to leaching or compaction by animals or machinery. The plates can be separated with a little effort by prying the horizontal layers with a pen knife. Platy structure tends to impede the downward movement of water and plant roots through the soil.
In the prismatic structure, the individual units are bounded by flat to rounded vertical faces. Units are distinctly longer vertically, and the faces are typically casts or molds of adjoining units. Vertices are angular or subrounded; the tops of the prisms are somewhat indistinct and normally flat. Prismatic structures are characteristic of the B horizons or subsoils. The vertical cracks result from freezing and thawing and wetting and drying as well as the downward movement of water and roots.
In the columnar structure, the units are similar to prisms and are bounded by flat or slightly rounded vertical faces. The tops of columns, in contrast to those of prisms, are very distinct and normally rounded. Columnar structure is common in the subsoil of sodium affected soils. Columnar structure is very dense and it is very difficult for plant roots to penetrate these layers. Techniques such as deep plowing have help to restore some degree of fertility to these soils.
In blocky structure, the structural units are blocklike or polyhedral. They are bounded by flat or slightly rounded surfaces that are casts of the faces of surrounding peds. Typically, blocky structural units are nearly equidimensional but grade to prisms and to plates. The structure is described as angular blocky if the faces intersect at relatively sharp angles; as subangular blocky if the faces are a mixture of rounded and plane faces and the corners are mostly rounded. Blocky structures are common in subsoil but also occur in surface soils that have a high clay content. The strongest blocky structure is formed as a result of swelling and shrinking of the clay minerals which produce cracks. Sometimes the surface of dried-up sloughs and ponds shows characteristic cracking and peeling due to clays.
In the granular structure, the structural units are approximately spherical or polyhedral and are bounded by curved or very irregular faces that are not casts of adjoining peds. In other words, they look like cookie crumbs. Granular structure is common in the surface soils of rich grasslands and highly amended garden soils with high organic matter content. Soil mineral particles are both separated and bridged by organic matter breakdown products, and soil biota exudates, making the soil easy to work. Cultivation, earthworms, frost action and rodents mix the soil and decreases the size of the peds. This structure allows for good porosity and easy movement of air and water. This combination of ease in tillage, good moisture and air handling capabilities, and good structure for planting and germination, are definitive of the phrase good tilth.
Some soils lack structure and are referred to as structureless. In structureless layers or horizons, no units are observable in place or after the soil has been gently disturbed, such as by tapping a spade containing a slice of soil against a hard surface or dropping a large fragment on the ground. When structureless soils are ruptured, soil fragments, single grains, or both result. Structureless soil material may be either single grain or massive. Soil material of single grains lacks structure. In addition, it is loose.
Soil structure and management
Practices that influence soil structure
Traditional agricultural practices have generally caused changes in soil structure which have compromised aggregation and porosity. This is usually termed soil structure decline. Charman and Murphy (1998) propose two categories of soil structure decline: cultivation and irrigation.
Soil structure will decline under most forms of cultivation – the associated mechanical mixing of the soil compacts and sheers 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 impacts of increasing soil structure
The benefits of increasing soil structure to 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 associated access by plants to soil moisture; improved emergence of seedlings due to reduced crusting of the surface, and; greater infiltration and associated available soil moisture 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.
Soil structure has been widely studied and is well represented in the literature. Soil structure is considered to be good or bad in terms of its application; plant growth in agricultural settings is one such application. Soil structure can be manipulated by management practices, and although the cause and effect relationships are complex and not always well understood, there is clearly a benefit to improving structure in terms of production and the preservation of soils as a natural asset.