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10 reasons why you should tile your ground

by Sep 26, 2023Blog, Water Management

Draining water from fields through tile is nothing new. John Johnston brought the concept to America from Scotland in the 1830s when he installed clay tiles on farmland he purchased in Seneca County, New York. Ultimately, Johnston tiled 320 acres to demonstrate how tiling poorly drained fields increased yields as well as profit per acre.

Back then, the goal of tile was to get rid of excess water, so crops could grow better. Through the years, tile drainage has evolved into an important soil management practice.

“Increasing yield is always at the top of the list for installing tile, but there are also a number of secondary benefits that can be realized once you get rid of that excess moisture like increasing microbial activity and boosting root development,” says Michael Maierhofer, GEM Ag Solutions.

With several years of experience in the drainage industry, Maierhofer’s role at the Ottawa, Illinois company centers around helping farmers understand why drainage benefits reach beyond yield increase, especially if you invest in your own equipment.

“One of the biggest concerns a farmer has with do-it-yourself tile installation is that he doesn’t know how, which hinders him from purchasing a tile plow and guidance,” he says.

By offering Soil-Max tile plows, the Intellislope tile plow control system, and their tile drainage know-how, GEM Ag Solutions is helping farmers look at do-it-yourself tile installation differently. Added to the Ag Leader lineup in 2012, both products greatly reduce the technical knowledge, labor, and time required to install tile, so farmers can better manage water challenges.

“It takes about three years to see a return on your investment compared to five to seven years if you hire someone. It just makes financial sense to purchase a system and install tile yourself, especially if you have more than one project,” Maierhofer says.

10 reasons why you should tile your ground

With the right equipment, installing tile yourself is not only cost efficient but it also offers a high return on investment. Maierhofer offers these 10 reasons why you should consider tile for your land.

1. HIGHER YIELDS. A proper drainage system will improve crop yields by 20% to 25% on average.

Maierhofer says it takes roughly three years to get a drainage system to run properly, because the soil needs time to adjust and allow water to migrate through the soil profile. “In year one, you might see a yield increase in the 10% to 12% range. In year two, expect a 15% to 20% yield increase,” he says. “By the third year, you should reach that 20% to 25% yield increase.”

2. HIGHER LAND VALUE. Tiling adds value to your land, making subsurface drainage an excellent investment

“Let’s say it costs you $1,200 an acre to install tile drainage. You’re going to recoup that investment threefold through the increased value and productivity of your land,” Maierhofer says, adding that there are a lot of investment firms buying subpar ground, investing in drainage, and then reselling it. “Basically, they’re flipping farm fields.”

3. HIGH RETURN ON INVESTMENT. Even when compared to machinery purchases, tiling has one of the highest returns on your investment.

“Most farmers can get away with hanging on to their machinery for a couple more years,” he says. “But year over year, if you have excess moisture, you’re losing crop from the moment you start planting. You’re losing on your seed investment. You’re losing on your fertilizer and chemical investment. By removing that excess moisture, you’re creating an optimal environment for plants to grow.”

4. DEEPER ROOT GROWTH. A proper drainage system lowers the water table. Crop roots then grow deeper to seek water. In turn, the roots have a greater source of nutrients available to them.

“Allowing that root to drive down through the soil profile naturally means you’re not only going to get a better crop stand but also a healthier crop,” Maierhofer says. “If you can get roots to grow deep enough, they are able to find moisture in July and August when there’s usually a shortage.”

5. SUPERIOR SOIL STRUCTURE. Proper field drainage results in soil granulation. The porous soil helps retain levels of water and air necessary for optimal crop growth.

“If your fields aren’t draining properly, the voided space throughout the soil profile is filled with moisture, which limits oxygen and the growth of microorganisms,” he says. “Once you get rid of that excess moisture, you can start to talk about your true soil structure and the ability for plant material to decompose.”

6. REDUCED SOIL COMPACTION. Properly drained fields experience faster drying times. Dryer soils allow for operation of large machinery sooner without the risk of compacting ground.

“Standing water can cause some of the worst soil compaction,” Maierhofer says. “If I remove surface and subsurface water, the ground can accept the weight of machinery better.”

7. LONGER GROWING SEASONS. The dry ground allows for earlier planting. Earlier planting means more time for the crop to fully mature.

“Many farmers judge their planting date by soil temperature. Once you incorporate drainage and remove that excess moisture, nine times out of 10 your soil temperature will go up, which means you are able to get into the field sooner,” he says.

8. DROUGHT TOLERANT. The lower water table of tiled ground causes roots to naturally grow deeper. Should you experience a dry period, the deep roots are still able to reach water and nutrients.

“A lot of times, people assume that when you put drought and drainage together, it’s a negative,” Maierhofer says. “Think of your ground like a sponge. When you get a heavy rain, that sponge stays saturated. By incorporating tile, that sponge is constantly being squeezed. Even though that sponge is being squeezed, it is still damp. Tiling only removes excess water. It doesn’t reduce the amount of water available to plants.

“Well-drained soil encourages deep and healthy root systems. In a drought, roots can drive down deeper in the soil profile seeking out that moisture at 12 inches plus, which is where that moisture is going to be in a drought. If the field weren’t tiled, root development would be limited to less than 12 inches.”

9. REDUCED EROSION. The ability to drain your ground faster allows more room for water absorption during rainfall. This reduces runoff and in turn saves you from surface erosion and preserves your soil structure and fertility.

“This goes back to the sponge example I talked about earlier,” he says. “When you get a heavy rain, the sponge gets saturated, because there’s nowhere for that moisture to go without subsurface drainage, so it runs off. When I’m squeezing that sponge or have that subsurface drainage in place, it’s allowing that moisture to percolate through the soil profile, so you don’t have that surface runoff during a heavy rainfall.”

10. LOWER DRYING COSTS. Properly drained fields allow crops to fully mature by harvest season, which reduces drying time.

“If you’re able to get into the field earlier, your crop can mature faster, which means you’re able to harvest at a lower moisture,” Maierhofer says.

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