September 3, 2018
Have you heard about Drainage Water Management systems? The DWM system — sometimes called controlled drainage or subsurface irrigation — can preserve soil moisture in dry times, release water in wet times, control nutrient loss and increase yields.
Here’s the idea: Pipes placed underground, in conjunction with water-control structures in tile lines, allow excess water to be removed from ground under the crop. “Stop logs” are then placed, or removed, from the structures depending on how much, or how little, water a farmer wants on his land.
“Right now, in our area there’s still interest in tiling,” says John Hester, a Natural Resources Conservation Service engineer in the Missouri Bootheel.
“People are calling and asking questions. The trouble they’re having right now — and this is pretty much happening in all sectors of agriculture — is commodity prices are making it prohibitive to jump into [installing such systems]. So, people seem to be holding back a bit,” Hester says.
Mark Nussbaum, also an NRCS engineer in the region, says, “These are very capital-intensive projects and a long-term investment. So, they’re holding out for better crop prices.”
Even so, Hester has “never seen anyone who’s put one in who’s been disappointed.”
Nussbaum references a YouTube video on DWM systems. “It shows how farmers can be extremely efficient with water use. If we’re going to surface-irrigate a cornfield in this area, we’ll use 10 to 12 inches. To get the same yield increase using subsurface irrigation, it takes about 5 to 6 inches.”
The engineers work a region far enough into the South, “where irrigation is key to making a good-quality crop,” Nussbaum says. “The folks who made these videos were focused on water quality, and the irrigation aspect was secondary. Farther north, they want drainage. But by the time we get to our region, irrigation is paramount.”
“That said, until one of these systems is installed, farmers don’t realize how much drainage issues have been affecting their fields,” Hester says. “Once they install it, it makes a big difference in the spring with replants and other things.
“The reason is with subsurface irrigation there’s essentially no surface evaporation. That’s a very big deal for some farmers. We’ve had visitors from California, where water access is limited, looking at this. There are farmers there now doing this.”
The engineers say there’s also been strong interest from farmers in central and southeastern Kansas, where there are concerns about water rights.
Bennett is associate editor for Delta Farm Press, a sister publication.
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