By Kevin Koepp
A tile plow has been an excellent investment for my brother and me. Drainage improvements translate to higher yields because the soil is less compacted and roots can penetrate deeper. In other words, with good drainage, we make more efficient use of fertilizer and seed, which is important with today's increasing input prices.
Good drainage lets us plant in a more timely fashion, with less wear and tear on equipment. Our land is spread out, so we want to be able to plant each field and not have to go back because of a wet spot. We see less soybean cyst damage on well-drained soil.
Poor drainage will impact yields beyond wet spots. If two acres are wet, there will be two more acres where stalks and root masses are smaller, and yield loss will occur.
We install about 20,000' of tile on our farm every year and also lay tile for other farmers.
When we tile, we lay a main line up to the base of a slope and run lines at a 45° angle up the side of the hill, 75' apart. That way, we get the water that leaches out the side of the hill.
Follow the rules. In 1985, when Swampbuster was enacted, many farmers feared we would no longer be allowed to improve drainage in our fields. Thankfully, that turned out not to be true. While we can no longer convert wetlands into cropland, we can improve the cropland that we already farm. We do have to follow procedures and sometimes take special measures to avoid draining wetlands or farmed wetlands, including wetlands on adjacent property.
(Farmed wetlands are partially drained wetlands that may contain some tile and can often be farmed. However, the degree of drainage cannot be improved beyond what it was in 1985, when Swampbuster took effect. The penalty is loss of USDA farm program benefits.)
If you have a farmed wetland in the middle of a field, you still can improve drainage elsewhere in the field, as long as you don't drain that area.
You can also remove water from other parts of the field by running a non-perforated tile through the farmed wetland, with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) approval. NRCS usually watches as the tile is installed, or they ask you to leave the trench open, so they can check and make sure it's non-perforated.
Planning ahead can make the process go smoother. We try to focus on one field at a time and use the results gathered by our combine yield monitor to identify the poorly drained sections in a field.
During the winter months, we fill out paperwork for NRCS, explaining where we want to tile. By the following fall, we have our permits. NRCS provides a map showing whether any wetlands or farmed wetlands are present and tells us how far away from those areas we have to stay with the new tile lines.
Before we start to tile, we first call Gopher State One Call, an agency that tells us where all the utility lines—gas, fiber optics, phone, electric and pipelines—are located. Your state probably has a similar agency. Making that call can prevent big problems.
Water details. Another aspect we address before tiling is finding a place to send the water. That's not required by Swampbuster—it's just a matter of being a good neighbor.
Sometimes, we can find creative solutions to the water disposal issue. On two occasions, neighbors had ponds, and they wanted the water to feed the pond. One uses the water to irrigate strawberries and the other uses it to water cattle. You never know what alternatives may be available until you ask.
Another way we use our tile plow is to replace open tile intakes. They are a nuisance to farm around and a place where pollution can enter water supplies. We remove the intakes from the main tile line. Then, we install a 50' tile line on each side of the main and 25' away. We cover 15' of the tile lines with 1" rock and put the topsoil back on top. It makes for less erosion and easier farming. In our locality, the government will cost-share some of the expense.