By Brian Hefty

In much of the Midwestern United States, there are two sure-fire ways to increase yield and profits: improve drainage, and fertilize more efficiently based on complete soil test data. We’ll focus on drainage in this article.

I realize that tiling has been around for centuries, and you may have had tile on your farm since before your grandpa was born, but there are still a lot of farmers who do not have tile installed yet. So whether this is review for you or not, I just want to give you a few of the basic informational points around tile.

  1. What tile does is lower the water table. That’s it. It doesn’t automatically run when you get rain. It doesn’t run when the water table is below the level of the tile, and it doesn’t run when the lines are frozen, which is often the case for us in South Dakota on our shallow, 3-foot deep lines in the winter through early to mid-spring.
  2. Tile isn’t going to flood anyone out. I know this doesn’t make sense initially, and you may completely disagree with this point until you actually see it in your fields, but adding tile typically decreases total water flow out of a field in the long-term, because yields go up, and higher-yielding crops use more water. What tile will do is change the timing of when water leaves a field. Without tile, we often see flash floods. With tile, water slowly leaves a field over days, if not weeks. That’s a good thing.
  3. Tile makes water cleaner, not dirtier. Look at all the studies done in the past and you will quickly see that TOTAL nutrient outflow from a tile system is far less than without tile. That’s because when there are flash floods, there is soil erosion. Your top half-inch of soil is usually loaded with nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, which are the two biggest water pollutants today. Soil is a great water filter, and by the time water slowly seeps through several feet of soil to reach a tile line, it is usually drinking-water quality. Yes, nitrates can leach, so all farmers need to manage nitrogen applications, but total nitrogen loss is less, and phosphorus loss is dramatically less in tiled land versus untiled land.

If you are still debating whether or not tile will pay on your farm, look at some of the benefits of tile:

  • Higher yield – typically 15% to 25%, more in some areas
  • Less chance for soil compaction
  • Earlier spring warm up
  • Longer & more predictable growing season
  • Very slowly reduce high magnesium levels
  • Speed all field operations from planting to harvest
  • Reduce stuck situations, breakdowns, and repair costs
  • Fewer seed & seedling diseases
  • Plant earlier
  • Spray more timely
  • Reduce surface water
  • Lower high soil pH
  • Reduce salt levels
  • Increased soil microbial life
  • Healthier soil

Why do I talk so much about tile, and why do I talk about it so passionately? It’s because we’ve had our own tile plow for 10 years now this fall. In that 10-year time period our yields have gone up way more than 50%! It’s not all due to tile, but when you have poor drainage you are often wasting your money changing fertility and planting better seed varieties. Poor drainage destroys your yield potential, and worse yet, it often ruins your soil. Almost every farmer I talk to says, “I want to leave my land in better condition for the next generation.” If you are serious about that and you have any kind of drainage issue at all, I would strongly encourage you to put some tile in the ground this fall.