Drainage Makes the Crop

December 12, 2008 06:00 PM
The wet spring of 2008 was a dramatic reminder—as if you needed one—of how much drainage impacts crop yield. The yield map for a field belonging to Keith Morgan of LeRoy, Ill., tells a typical story: The field averaged 196 bu. per acre, but six acres of it yielded zero.

"As the area that actually produced a crop got smaller, my per-acre costs went up,” Morgan says. Here's how Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie views the impact of poor drainage on production cost: Say you're renting a 100-acre field for $200 per acre. If you lose 30 acres because of standing water, you actually farmed 70 acres. That means you paid $286 per acre to rent the land that produced a crop (100 acres x $200 = $20,000 rent; $20,000 ÷ 70 acres = $286 per acre)
If you applied $150 per acre in
inputs on that field and got nothing in return on the 30 acres, that's a $4,500 loss. The phosphorus and potassium that you applied may still be there for next year, but the herbicide, insecticide and nitrogen—well, let's not even speculate where your nitrogen went.
The solution, of course, is to improve the field's drainage. But drainage is more than simply "tiling a field,” points out Dave Williamson. Along with his brothers Dale and Dennis, Dave operates Williamson Farm Drainage Inc., in Bloomington, Ill.

Size up the field. "Effective drainage may include either surface or subsurface measures or, frequently, both,” Dale says. Surface drainage simply requires cutting channels to an outlet.

"It's a misconception that tile can solve all water problems,” he says. "If water is ponding, the size of tile needed to remove water in 30 hours, before it harms the crop, may be prohibitively expensive.

"If you have both surface and subsurface drainage problems, you have to fix the surface drainage problem first or you won't be satisfied with your tile system,” Dale continues. "If you can fix the surface drainage, it will make the tile system cheaper and improve its performance.”

There are a surprising number of such areas, Dave adds. "We sometimes think that if drainage could have been improved, Dad would already have done it,” he says. "But just recently, I saw a field where water was standing because a ridge remained from an old fence row that had been removed a long time ago.

"On another farm, which was bisected by a county drainage ditch, the spoil that formed the ditch bank created a ridge that prevented water from running off the field. All it needs is an inlet pipe running 30' from the pond to the drainage ditch,” Dave says.

Where will water go? If you have a stream or county drainage ditch running through your farm, you're lucky. "We can put in multiple outlets and use smaller mains in the field,” Dave says. Outlets, which may require running tile to a distant drainage ditch, are the biggest factor in the cost of most drainage projects.

If you need to outlet a drainage system onto a neighbor's property, you'll need to be a diplomat. "Outletting a surface drain through adjacent land can be challenging,” Dave says. "The most cooperative neighbors seem to be farmers who have had the same problem themselves or who might have it in the future.”

"Not every field will drain itself,” says Illinois farmer Morgan. "Often, you'll have a field where water drains in two or three directions, and you'll need to cross a neighbor's property with a tile line. You need to find a
solution that benefits everyone. If you do, you can get a lot accomplished.”

With rented ground, you'll have to persuade a landowner to pay for installing drainage. "Yield maps are a great tool,” Dave says, "because you can show exactly how much yields are being reduced. A landowner may not believe he has a problem if a field is averaging 170 bu. or 180 bu. per acre. But you can show him on the map that some areas are producing only 80 bu. or 100 bu., while others are yielding 250-plus bushels, even though there was no drowned-out or yellow corn.”

Especially with elderly landowners, you can point out that Section 179 of the U.S. income tax code allows them to write off the entire cost of tile in one year, rather than 20, Dave continues. "To do that, the landowner must materially participate in producing the crop,” he says. "So it won't work if you cash rent.”

Estate planning may be a persuasive argument. "If a landowner has a lot of cash, he can use some of it to improve his property for his heirs and reduce his estate tax a bit,” Dave says.
(Before you discuss taxes or estate planning with a landowner, check with an attorney and tax accountant to make sure you're on solid ground.)

If you have high phosphorus and potassium soil-test levels in your field, consider skipping phosphorus and potassium applications for a while and using the savings to help pay for drainage, Dave suggests.

If cost is no obstacle, you'll probably opt for a systematic tile system in which lines are placed 80' or 100' apart or whatever the land requires. If you're limited on cash, you'll probably go with a random system, in which lines are run only to problem areas.

Another option is to install half of a systematic tile system now, and then you can do the rest later. "You could systematically drain half of your land,” Dave explains. "But it's better to put in half of the systematic tile lines over all your land.”
If you can do a larger project, you may net some savings. "Much of our expense is the time, labor and fuel required to move to a project, so with bigger jobs, we can charge less per foot of tile,” Dale says.

If you can't drain. For a variety of reasons, you may just have to keep farming a wet field. Some fields can't be drained because of the lay of the land. Or, you may have to farm the wet ground in order to continue renting the owner's better land.

Even if you no-till everything else, you may have to do some tillage or strip-till on the wet field to get it to dry out and warm up for timely planting. Perhaps you can devise a creative lease agreement in which the landowner shares the risk.

Federal Crop Insurance Corporation may reduce some of the risk, based on your production history and the structure of your policy. But every farm you operate in the same county, producing the same commodity, such as corn or soybeans, must be insured at the same level, says Jay Peterson of Peterson Insurance in Clinton, Ill.

An exception would apply if one of your wet fields is located in a high-risk area, as designated by the federal Risk Management Agency. In that case, you can opt out of coverage for that field, Peterson explains. Your insurance agent will know whether you're in one of those areas.

Management can help minimize problems from a wet field, this year and in the future. "Pick your hybrids carefully because some of them tolerate wet feet better than others,” Ferrie says. "Plant the wrong one and yields can tumble down hard. Your seeds salesman can tell you which hybrids are best for wet spots.”

Remember to manage your nitrogen. "Wet areas are at high risk for nitrogen loss,” he adds. "We saw a lot of wet fields last year where there was a good stand but the nitrogen was lost. Fall application is not a good choice for fields that tend to be wet.”

If a field has a history of ponding and replanting in wet years, keep your herbicide options open so you can replant with any crop.

Above all, don't give up, even if conditions seem bleak. "In 2008, a lot of farmers in central Illinois pulled 40-bu. soybeans that were not planted until late June or early July,” Ferrie says. If you don't get anything planted, control the weeds anyway, so they don't make seed for next year.

Remember that late-planted areas will trail the rest of the field in maturity. "If you apply a fungicide on corn, you may have to shut off the applicator on replanted areas to avoid damaging the crop,” Ferrie says. "If you use a herbicide that is sensitive to the crop growth stage, you'll have to spray the replanted area later. Scout late-planted corn carefully because it may become a magnet for insects. You may also have to apply an insecticide to enable the plants to pollinate.”

If you store your own corn, harvest late-maturing areas separately so you don't wind up blending high- and low-moisture grain in the bin. That increases the risk of spoilage. (If you mixed corn with varying levels of moisture this past fall, carefully watch it this winter.)

Speedy installation. Once you decide to tile, working with your contractor will help get the job done faster. "Give us a call before you finish harvest, so we can schedule your job,” Dave says. "Avoid doing fall tillage where you plan to tile. If it rains, it will get muddy and slow the project down.

"Consider planting wheat or oats in the areas to be tiled. A lot of our customers did that this year, and we were able to stay busy all summer long.”

You can e-mail Darrell Smith at dsmith@farmjournal.com.

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