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Well-drained fields key to cropland productivity 
Farmers know that optimizing field drainage is an essential part of maximizing economic crop production. Research has shown that up to 25 percent of cropland in the United States and Canada could not be farmed without tile drainage. We also know that agricultural drainage systems sometimes tend to be leaky, that is allowing more than just water to drain from productive fields.

Kevin King, an agricultural engineer with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) spoke about those challenges at last week’s meeting of the Ohio Land Improvement Contractors Assoc. (OLICA) annual convention in Dublin, Ohio.

King noted that farmers provide society with food, feed, fiber, and fuel with economic efficiency. As a society he wondered, how do we equilibrate between economic efficiency and ecological impact? He suggested that we need to not only have increasingly efficient agronomics, but we need to better combine that with practices which provide healthier soils and approaches that effectively manage landscapes and their natural variability. King stressed the importance of integrating knowledge about landscape variability, hydrology, and ecosystem processes into production agriculture. We must accept that agricultural systems do leak, and that we must mitigate the impact of agriculture by incorporating upland, edge-of-field and downstream approaches.

With his audience mostly consisting of farm drainage contractors, King even drew on historical references to emphasize the necessity of good soil drainage systems. Two excerpts from the 1860 publication, “Farm Drainage” clearly state the case. John H Klippart, Esq.; the learned secretary of the Ohio Board of Agriculture was quoted saying, “The agriculture of Ohio can make no farther marked progress until a good system of under-drainage is adopted.” Another statement drawn from a writer in the “Country Gentleman”, in Ohio’s Ashtabula County said, “One of two things must be done by us here. Clay predominates in our soil, and we must under-drain our land, or sell and move west.”

Due to water holding capacity and the nutrient storage capability of soils consisting of a high percentage of clay, those soils (which also require tile drainage) have some of the greatest inherent production potential of all soil types. Known to farmers and tiling contractors and cited in research by Norm Fausey, USDA-ARS in 1987, tile drainage also provides trafficable conditions for timely field operations and promotes root development by preventing exposure of plants to excess water.

Much of the soil in Ohio, Indiana and neighboring states is glacially derived and fine textured (clay). Such soils, soils of low gradient (flat) or those in slightly depressed areas generally require intense surface and subsurface drainage systems to be economically productive. Productivity is often tied to timeliness, which can be jeopardized with the occurrence of rainfall. Too often, we all know, rain coincides too closely with spring and fall fieldwork.

Good drainage systems help alleviate potential planting and harvest timeliness issues.  

King went on to discuss current studies being conducted by him and other researchers. Much of his work is concentrated on nutrients escaping through tile lines. Loss of dissolved phosphorus and nitrate nitrogen is a financial detriment to crop farmers while contributing to water quality issues in lakes, ponds, streams and rivers. Research into various tile and surface drainage systems is being done to help determine the best balance between agricultural productivity and natural resource protection. King is involved in 18 edge-of-field sites scattered around northwest Ohio, measuring water discharge from those areas during periods of high and low rainfall events.  

In a future Ohio Farm News column, expect to learn more about Kevin King’s research efforts that should help farmers maximize crop nutrient inputs while minimizing environmental degradation.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Readers with questions or comments for Roger Bender may write to him in care of this publication.