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These farmers agree that installing drainage in wet fields is critical to success.

Tom J. Bechman, Editor, Indiana Prairie Farmer

August 13, 2020

2 Min Read
Rolls of tile await installation for a pattern-tile drainage system
INVEST IN TILE: Rolls of tile await installation for a pattern-tiled drainage system in this field, currently served only by old clay tile lines. Tom J. Bechman

Ask Mike Starkey about what it takes to make no-till successful, and you might be surprised at his answer. Starkey of Brownsburg, Ind., has no-tilled both corn and soybeans for over 20 years, and has also used cover crops for 15 years. He typically plants both corn and soybeans green into cover crops each spring.

“If you’re asking me what you need to do to make no-till work, improving drainage in wet fields is at the top of the list,” Starkey says. “You must get tile installed and get drainage right first.

“Then you can go on to other things, including learning from your peers, starting out small before switching your whole farm to no-till and being open to change. But it all starts with getting drainage right before you do anything else.”

Starkey notes that most of the land that he farms is naturally somewhat poorly, or poorly drained. Clay tile lines were installed to drain the wettest spots decades ago.

“When my dad farmed conventionally in the 1970s and 1980s, many of those clay tile lines still functioned,” Starkey says. “But they’re just worn out today. For the most part, they no longer function.”

That’s why he makes installing pattern tile a priority. Since it’s expensive, you can only tile so many acres each year. With wheat in his crop rotation, he usually has fields where the tiling contractor can work after wheat is harvested and straw is baled. Wheat stubble fields also give him a place to seed 14-way cover crop mixes. Many species in those mixes must be planted before corn and soybeans are harvested to get enough growth before winter.

Tile improves wet fields

A few counties to the west, Carter Morgan of Cayuga is also a firm believer in the benefit of installing pattern tile in fields with soil drainage issues, especially if you’re in conservation tillage. He farms with his father, Brian, brother Brent and uncle Darrell. Carter also assists the Vermillion County Soil and Water Conservation District in encouraging and working with other farmers who want to try no-till and cover crops. The Morgans primarily no-till, often planting green into cover crops.

“We have our own tile plow, and we’ve definitely seen the benefits of tiling on many of our fields,” Morgan explains. “Wet spots show up as lower yielding in wet years on yield maps. If you can tile those fields, it’s not long before you’re seeing better yields on yield maps.”

As an example, Morgan points to a field that they tiled about four years ago. It has similar soils to a nearby field that isn’t yet pattern-tiled. “The yield maps indicated better than a 30-bushel-per-acre advantage for the tiled field the last time they were in corn and about the same advantage in wheat,” he says.

They typically install 4-inch laterals on their soils, usually on 50-inch centers. Even though some of their fields have a gentle slope, they still need tile drainage, Morgan says.







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About the Author(s)

Tom J. Bechman

Editor, Indiana Prairie Farmer, Farm Progress

Tom J. Bechman is editor of Indiana Prairie Farmer. He joined Farm Progress in 1981 as a field editor, first writing stories to help farmers adjust to a difficult harvest after a tough weather year. His goal today is the same — writing stories that help farmers adjust to a changing environment in a profitable manner.

Bechman knows about Indiana agriculture because he grew up on a small dairy farm and worked with young farmers as a vocational agriculture teacher and FFA advisor before joining Farm Progress. He works closely with Purdue University specialists, Indiana Farm Bureau and commodity groups to cover cutting-edge issues affecting farmers. He specializes in writing crop stories with a focus on obtaining the highest and most economical yields possible.

Tom and his wife, Carla, have four children: Allison, Ashley, Daniel and Kayla, plus eight grandchildren. They raise produce for the food pantry and house 4-H animals for the grandkids on their small acreage near Franklin, Ind.

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