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Tiling Boosts Productivity
If you had the ability to make double-digit yield gains, would you? That’s what Scott Fritz, a no-till farmer from Winamac, Indiana, did. He’s adopted several steps that have helped him build up his sandy, high-organic soils. He gives partial credit for the improved soil health to his field drainage systems.
Fritz has tiled nearly every field he owns through a mix of pattern tiling and spot tiling in wet spots. Before tiling his fields, he saw too much yield variation.
“The biggest thing I see is the lack of drowned-out spots. After a really wet spring, an acre or two in various places in the field drown out,” says Fritz.
Those areas quickly add up when there’s potential in several of your fields. Minimizing those lost acres pays for Fritz. Without tiling, those acres would not mature as quickly as well-drained ones. In a year like 2014, with a wet August and September, tiling helps keep these acres on track, says Fritz.
In the spring, tile allows for early field access. It eliminates drowned-out spots, which allows Fritz to get into the field and do fieldwork.
Logistically, tiling allows you to do fieldwork when you have the time, says Chad Watts, project director for the Conservation Technology Information Center.
That means timely field access for planting, spraying, or harvesting, and, ultimately, means higher yields. With the weather volatility of the last few years, it pays to be prepared.
This year, Fritz’s area received 8 inches of rain in August, well above the normal amount.
“I know those drainage systems are working really well into August and September,” Fritz says.
In wet years, corn yields are boosted 10 bushels per acre, he averages. However, yield responses can vary year to year, and they can depend on soil types.
Another benefit Fritz counts on is fewer plant diseases. That’s because plant roots are in standing water for shorter periods of time.
“Standing water in the spring or summer is never a healthy situation,” says Fritz. It fuels the fungus that can spawn sudden death syndrome (SDS) in soybeans later in the season. Removing wet spots with tile helps nix the saturated soils that nurture plant diseases, he says.
Pairing cover crops with properly tiled no-till ground has increased soil health and lessened compaction for Fritz.
“I’m really careful about working soils too wet,” he says. “I like that these cover crops go down with a good root system and break up some of these compacted layers. With tile, the roots can go possibly deeper than they could with a high water table.”
Common benefits of field tile include:
- Early and timely planting
- Improved harvesting conditions
- More consistent yields
- Better plant stand
- Less plant stress
- Fewer plant diseases
- Less soil compaction
- Increased land value
“Drainage was one thing that really advanced agriculture across many of the wetter soils of the Midwest,” says Watts. “By drowning the crop roots, standing water stunts plants and limits the plants’ ability to grow deeper into the soil, where some of the nutrients are located. There are some limitations there, and we couldn’t achieve some of the yields that we achieve without drainage.”
For Fritz, it was a combination of factors that encouraged him to install tile. Ultimately, it comes down to profit.
“Tile is a great return on investment,” says Fritz. “Sometimes it’s hard to see that until you see how well the field responds to good drainage.”
Not only is Fritz a believer in field tile, but he also has water- control structures in two of his fields. These structures allow him to manipulate the water table throughout the year. These structures provide direct benefits and help keep nutrients from unnecessarily going downstream.
“The main purpose of drainage tile is to get rid of excess water,” says Phil Algreen of Agri Drain. “Usually in the Corn Belt, we get enough rainfall throughout the year to grow a good crop. We just don’t always get it when we need it.”
Water-control structures allow you the opportunity to save some of that water. With these systems, you aren’t stopping drainage; rather, you’re raising the water table within that field, says Fritz. You do have to be careful not to hold the water table too high, cautions Algreen.
Drainage water management could help when you’re not getting rainfall at the ideal time, says Algreen.
“The tile works in the spring, reducing your water table. In summertime, you can conserve water,” says Fritz. “Then, in wintertime, we’re learning that a lot of N is lost in these fields in winter, especially through tile. Having your tile lines closed off in wintertime is a water-quality issue.”
By closing off tile lines, the goals are to reduce N loss and to increase crop uptake of nutrients, says Fritz.
“With water control structures, when you don’t need to be on the field, you aren’t moving water out of the field via tile drainage. So you are damming up the water in that tile system between after planting and before harvest,” says Watts. “If you can keep that drainage water from moving, the thought is you can keep some of that N that would have been lost in that drainage water. Then it can be taken up by the crop.”
There’s also a benefit to soil health from tiling fields. Effectively moving water underground eases erosion concerns, says Watts. Keeping the topsoil in the field will also promote improved soil health.
What it costs
On average, installing field tile can cost around $500 to $600 per acre, says Algreen. He usually expects to see 25% yield increase in fields with tile installed over no drainage.
Drainage is part of a farming system. It needs to be viewed as such and not as individual parts, says Watts.
“When added, though, tile drainage makes the whole cropping system work so much better,” says Fritz. “It’s not excessively wet in the spring, and you don’t lose crops due to high water tables. In summertime when it turns dry, you have a strong root system, and cover crops can get established. There’s no incentive to invest in a field if it’s subject to ponding and flooding.”