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Your Farm Business

Understanding the economics of tile drainage

August 27, 2010
From Wayne Schoper and Rich Baumann, South Central College

From Wayne Schoper

and Rich Baumann

South Central College

Article Photos

Rich Baumann and Wayne Schoper

We live in a part of the northern Corn Belt with very productive soils. Agriculture is the main driving economic force in Minnesota and much of this depends on crop production. However, many of these acres, over 7 million total, have wetness limitations that limit productivity. More than half of the 400 plus soil types mapped in Minnesota have problems with excessive water. Over the 150 years of production agriculture in Minnesota has seen many of these acres augmented with some sort of drainage system to remove excess water and make the land more palatable for good crop production.

The two major methods of farmland drainage are surface drainage where standing water is removed using surface ditches and subsurface drainage where excess water is removed through a system of underground drainage tiles. This article will discuss subsurface tile drainage.

The major reason, as stated before, for installing subsurface drainage is to improve the productivity of the farmland. Higher yields translate to good economic returns. This is especially true in years like this where we have had rainfall amounts in excess of 2-3 inches. Much of this water would stand in the fields for weeks and cause major crop damage. We already can see some yellow spots in fields where some additional tile can be used. Higher crop prices and an additional advantage of being able to get into the field and plant and harvest in a timely manner are also important considerations. It also allows a larger window of time for a farmer to plant and harvest the crop allowing for these operations to be done in a manner that is more efficient and less costly.

Specific advantages of tile drainage are:

1. More consistent yields: This reduces financial risk and allows for more efficient use of resources.

2. Early and more timely planting: Part of the reason that we planted later years ago was due to the fact that soils were too wet and cold early in the planting season

3. Improved harvesting conditions: The fall harvest season of 2009 is a good example of what can happen during the harvest season. Without good tile drainage some of our area fields would not be able to be harvested or tilled until the ground froze or until the following spring. Of course, frozen ground cannot be tilled and waiting till spring to complete tillage can make for a very mediocre seed bed.

4. Less wear and tear on equipment: Harvest goes a lot better and combining and fall tillage goes a lot smoother when the soil is in good condition.

5. Less power required for field operations: This ties in with wear and tear on the equipment. If we look back at history and the kind of field equipment that we had 40 years ago, wet harvest conditions would make harvest a lot tougher.

6. Better plant stand: Crops grow much better with moisture levels at proper levels. For example; soybeans cannot tolerate standing water for any length of time. They soon develop disease problems and severe stand reductions. Root rot begins within hours after a large rainfall that leaves standing water of saturated soils. A few days of standing water will kill can and alfalfa.

7. Less plant stress and fewer plant diseases: these tie in with the previous comment. Less plant stress translates in to better yields.

8. Less soil compaction: Tillage operations should be conducted on soils that are relatively dry. The fall of 2009 saw tillage conditions that were often too wet and thus allowed for a lot of compaction.

9. Increased land value: Good tile drainage is considered to be a capital investment and will increase the salable value of the land.



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