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As it gets more difficult to buy more land, landowners are opting to improve land they own and realize the benefits of earlier planting with drainage.

Tyler Harris, Editor

April 18, 2016

3 Min Read

The Logan Creek Dredge, or "the Dredge" as it's sometimes called locally, runs through Cedar, Dixon, Thurston, Cuming, Burt, and Dodge counties. While farmland along this creek bottom ground is some of the most productive in the region, it's also prone to saturated soils in wet years.

"Around here, a lot of high-producing ground is next to creeks," says Jay Uehling, who farms in Dodge and Burt counties along the Dredge. "We have some areas that are good ground, but when it gets wet, you suffer, and you take a hit right away. With the high cost of inputs, if you don't get the productivity out of it you want, you're throwing money away."

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Poorly-drained soils are something many growers deal with in this part of east-central Nebraska, notes Nathan Mueller, University of Nebraska Extension cropping systems specialist in Dodge and Washington counties. "If you look at 30-year norms, we're getting an inch more rain than we used to 30 years ago. Then you have flat topography. That's a recipe for dealing with more water, because it can't get away and it can't move through the profile fast enough," says Mueller.

Improving the land
That's why Uehling and other growers in Dodge, Washington, and Burt counties have been borrowing from the playbooks of growers in states to the east by installing subsurface drainage systems.

As land values have risen in recent years, landowners like Uehling have opted to make the land they own more productive, rather than buying more acres. "Land is hard to come by, so I'm trying to do better with what I have. It's a long-term investment," says Uehling, who has used tile drainage since the mid-1990s.

Last winter, Mueller held a series of workshops focused on improving land with ag drainage, and despite lower commodity prices, he says interest is holding steady.

"In many areas of the Corn Belt we certainly had some pretty wet springs last year. People are looking at what drainage can do for them in minimizing that early-season stress and help with more timely planting," says Matt Helmers, Iowa State University agricultural drainage specialist, who helped conduct the workshops with Mueller last winter.

Earlier in the field
The biggest agronomic benefit is a bigger planting window, and being able to get in the field sooner. "One of the main production limitations is what is that thing that prevents people from getting in and planting timely, or it's wet during the growing season where you have water-logged soils where you're losing yield potential on your crops," Mueller says. "Soybean roots need oxygen. On corn acres, there's also the concern of loss of nitrogen through denitrification, moving from nitrate form to nitrous oxide as a gas."

It also makes it easier to do other field operations like applying herbicide when it needs to be applied – preventing late applications and giving weeds a competitive advantage.

Planting earlier means earlier emergence, greater yield potential, and less time spent in the field fixing mistakes. "Where we have tile drainage, it has made a big difference. You don't have to go back and re-plant the spots that were too wet," Uehling says. "Everything is more timely."

This article is the first in a two-part series on the use of subsurface drainage in eastern Nebraska.

About the Author(s)

Tyler Harris

Editor, Wallaces Farmer

Tyler Harris is the editor for Wallaces Farmer. He started at Farm Progress as a field editor, covering Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. Before joining Farm Progress, Tyler got his feet wet covering agriculture and rural issues while attending the University of Iowa, taking any chance he could to get outside the city limits and get on to the farm. This included working for Kalona News, south of Iowa City in the town of Kalona, followed by an internship at Wallaces Farmer in Des Moines after graduation.

Coming from a farm family in southwest Iowa, Tyler is largely interested in how issues impact people at the producer level. True to the reason he started reporting, he loves getting out of town and meeting with producers on the farm, which also gives him a firsthand look at how agriculture and urban interact.

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