Drainage, yields and the environment

By Kayla Weaver, OCJ field reporter

With solid market prices and steady land values, Ohio farmers are taking the opportunity to reinvest in their farms by making improvements or upgrading their equipment. Many are choosing to invest more in their land with the installation of new drainage systems that also allow them to take advantage of new technology.

Steve Gerten, owner and operator of Inbody Drainage in Leipsic serves as the chairman of the Ohio Land Improvement Contractors of America (OLICA) and has been very involved in the new trends in drainage in his business.

“The farm economy over the last four or five years has been successful as far as being able to finally make a decent profit margin. In turn, farmers are reinvesting into their farms. I think technology, such as a yield monitor, plays a role as they can see an impact in fields they’ve tiled and can quickly see the payback of having a drainage system,” he said. “Technology shows what the potential could be so that has been a real push to get more drainage underway. Whenever they can see an increase in yields and the payback is there, they see it’s a good investment.”

New technology allows contractors to use satellites to measure elevation and install tile on a very accurate grade to make drainage systems more effective.

The rise in drainage installation has been accompanied by a rise in concerns about nutrient run-off and environmental impact from fields that are extensively tiled. The response from the industry has been more specific research and the implementation of new technology in drainage systems and installation techniques, including the use of controlled drainage.

“From an environmental standpoint, I think the drainage industry has made great strides in trying to achieve some of the things necessary to try and retain some of the nitrates and the phosphorus within the soil profile instead of letting them run into open streams,” Gerten said. “In the past few years we’ve been looking at the issue of run-off with nitrates and phosphorus and so forth. We’ve been implementing more and more drainage control systems.”

A controlled drainage system is very similar to a traditional one, except that it includes one or more strategically placed controlled drainage structures. These structures are basically vertical columns that provide a way to block off the end of a drainage tile so the water is not able to exit. Water will stay in the tile line to keep the water level up and provide crops with extra moisture when needed. This can be especially beneficial with the extreme wet and dry seasons we’ve seen in Ohio.

“In the spring of the year you can open a tile system up so it can free drain and dry out to where the farmer can get in to get his crop planted. Then, after the crop is planted, you can re-establish levels in those control structures which holds that water back in the tile lines,” Gerten said.

This feature also allows farmers to hold water back as the crop is developing so there is more sub-surface moisture for roots to tap into. Additionally, when fall approaches, or if excessive rainfall is forecasted, farmers can lower the levels enabling the water to drain off. It’s not only the crops that benefit from controlled drainage, but the environment as well.

“The use of these drainage control structures has been proven to be a vital and important step that farmers and operators can manage and use. The key with it all is managing it correctly,” Gerten said. “There’s more information coming along all the time as far as the use of drainage control devices.”

Gerten was also involved in tiling projects at Ohio State’s Molly Caren Agricultural Center where the Farm Science Review is held each September. At this location, they are trying to incorporate as much controlled drainage as possible to take advantage of the known benefits as well as obtain more information on how well the devices work and the real value of their use.

Mark Wilson, of Land Stewards in Marion, Ohio, serves as the executive director of OLICA and has been very involved in the changing trends in the drainage industry from the increase in the rate of new tile installation as well as the use of new technology. According to Wilson, drainage control systems are still an option for currently tiled fields where farmers or landowners are looking to upgrade to take advantage of this relatively new option. He also knows that while some farmers are comfortable laying out their own systems, it is easier to upgrade or retrofit a system if it was laid out by a professional.

“When you hire a LICA member you’re really hiring someone who has the equipment, technology and, most

The Ohio Land Improvement Contractors Association worked with the staff at Ohio's Farm Science Review to install a new drainage control system past September.

importantly, the knowledge on how to lay out the system and can install a highly effective systematic drainage network. When somebody does lay out a system like that it’s possible at a later point in time to go back in and retrofit or upgrade that system by splitting the middle or by installing a control drainage structure,” Wilson said. “Controlled drainage systems work much better if the system has been laid out to run along the contour and work over to a tile main as opposed to a system that runs up and down the hill.”

Keeping up with the changes in tiling systems, there have also been improvements in ditching, or tile installation, machines. Becoming much more common are tile plows that open up and lift the soil while feeding a corrugated plastic drain pipe underneath the ground as it goes. The advantage of the tile plow is there is no need to backfill. The second type of ditching machine cuts an open trench of any width that the tile is laid in. Then the trench is backfilled. Each has its own benefits as the equipment has become very specialized for the industry over the years.

Newer machines are equipped with GPS elevation control, which will calculate the elevation and know exactly how deep the tile should be laid to create a constant grade. Often a tenth or a hundredth of an inch of grade change is all that is required, which becomes more accurate with a more sophisticated machine.

“We’re also seeing much better pipe, or tile, with stronger walls for specific uses, perforated or solid tile or different diameters, so the tile industry really has stepped up. Then there are a variety of add-ons after the tile are in — a variety of structures that can make the whole business of draining a farm much more efficient,” Wilson said.

Looking to the future, Wilson is optimistic about the improving balance between producing crops and environmental stewardship.

“We produce a lot of food in this country, and in order for us to do that we need drainage,” he said. “I’m encouraged when I hear people say that it’s not a matter of trying to limit the amount of tiling, it’s more of a matter of trying to do it better and trying to understand factors of soil quality and how the whole system really plays together. I would hope that we sit back and allow the industry and the researchers at Ohio State to answer some of these questions rather than rush to a quick judgment.”

While there have been talks in other states, and to some extent in Ohio, about a moratorium on agricultural drainage, Wilson believes we are very fortunate in Ohio to have soils that can be effectively drained to grow crops while still protecting the environment. The key is site-specific solutions and continually working toward a better understanding of how it all works together.


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