January 7, 2005 | By: Laura Skillman

Poorly drained soils can limit a crop’s productivity, yet grain producers don’t necessarily have to settle for low yields. Adding surface and subsurface drainage can be an option.

Drainage issues are a hot topic, said Mike Smith, Henderson County agricultural and natural resources agent for the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. To address the issue, Smith recently brought together economic, soil and drainage specialists from UK, Ohio State University and private industry.

“In the past few years, it has been one of the main limiting factors in production for Henderson County producers,” Smith said. “Yield monitors and the yield variability they show within fields has helped spur interest in drainage."

Surface drainage, using a ditching system, can be effective means of draining excess water and improving yields but even higher yield advantages can be achieved with subsoil tile drainage. Installation costs can be a factor in determining whether drainage systems can be added to a farming operation.

Tiling can increase timeliness and flexibility of field operations, allow for better soil aeration and root structure, reduce the likelihood of soil compaction, may reduce tillage and increase yields and decrease variability.

With many farm fields rented, not all fields can or need to be tiled but for those farmers that are considering whether to tile, there are several factors to consider. 

Craig Gibson, UK farm management specialist, outlined some of the factors to consider in determining if tiling is an economic option on their operations. Producers need to look at very specific information including soil types from their own operations to determine what the payback will be if they decide to install tile, he said.

Undrained fields are most sensitive to weather conditions and yields will reflect that. Using ditching systems can improve their corn yields by 30 bushels per acre based on data for clay soils from Ohio State University, Gibson said. The ditchers are a cheaper option than tile and a good option for rented land. That same data showed an average yield increase for tiled fields of 56 bushels above untiled fields and 24 bushels above surface drainage. The combination of the two provided the best yields.

Producers need to be careful not to expect their ground to perform in the same manner, Gibson cautioned, because all soils don’t equally respond. 

One analysis farmers can do to make an estimate on whether tile will pay on their farm is to do a breakeven analysis. To do this, producers will need to know a cost estimate of tiling and interest rates to borrow money to install the tile. They also will have to calculate the increase in net farm income needed to get their money back. For example, if the tile cost 600 dollars per acre and the interest rate is 7 percent, then a producer will need to increase net farm income by $52.20 per acre on 150 acres over 15 years or 26 additional bushels of corn per acre at $2 corn.

Producers can also do a net rate of return analysis which will require a cost of tiling estimate and an increase in average net farm income estimate. This will allow them to determine for every dollar spent on tiling, the average annual interest earned on the investment.

“I would encourage you, if you have the least bit of interest, in doing this on a one-on-one basis,” Gibson said.


Writer: Laura Skillman 270-365-7541 ext. 278

Contacts: Craig Gibson, 270-827-1395
Mike Smith, 270-826-8387