Drainage tile Field improvements

Drainage tile being installed in a field in Wayne County, Ill. Field improvements are proceeding in many areas despite the struggling farm economy. Many farmers are taking advantage of matching grants from the USDA and others are extending payment for construction.

Despite the down ag economy, farmers do not appear to be putting field improvements on hold.

Major projects such as drainage tile installation, terrace construction and the creation of saturated buffers are continuing across the Midwest.

“The desire is still there,” said Crystal Nance, a district conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “I don’t think we’re seeing any less. People are still making plans to do things in the future.”

Federal funding for conservation practices is not yet allocated for the 2019-20 fiscal year, but Nance said there is plenty of interest from farmers for financial assistance. NRCS programs include EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) and the Conservation Stewardship Program. Grants for matching funds are available for a host of conservation practices.

“The interest we had in EQIP this year was really high,” said Paige Buck with the NRCS. “I can’t say that the tough economy is going to impact what is available, especially from NRCS.”

Farmers apparently have not slowed down on drainage tile installation.

“We’re swamped. We’re trying to make tile fast enough to get it out there,” said Steve Johnson of Timewell Drainage Products in Timewell, Ill. “I’ve been with the company over 20 years, and I haven’t seen this.”

Johnson said he believes the yield increases farmers are experiencing in tiled fields have encouraged more to install a drainage system. The ubiquity of combine yield monitors that provide instant feedback helped to back up the decision, he said.

“It didn’t used to be a major practice until they found out how much better the crops would yield and how well the soil turns out because of the drainage,” he said. “It means less slippage on tires and lower fuel usages. There are so many neat things about it.”

It remains to be seen how much in-field construction will take place over the remainder of the year. In many areas, incessant rainfall over much of the spring and early summer pushed planting back significantly. That could affect the timing of major projects — the late harvest will serve to compress the window of time work can be done.

“There is some uncertainty with their income right now,” Nance said. “Also, harvest is going to be so stretched out. I think they also recognize that Mother Nature hasn’t been as kind to us as we’d all like her to be.”

Conversely, the difficulty in planting may provide a window for earlier work.

“In some parts of the state with prevented planting acres, there was the opportunity to do some conservation work in August,” Nance said. “Sometimes it can cut both ways.”

She added that new construction is not the only work taking place.

“Generally, with any conservation practices, you have to do maintenance,” Nance said. “Farmers repair dry dams and take sediment out to restore the capacity.”

The wet conditions earlier in the year also damaged field structures in some areas.

“Many farmers are redoing waterways where excessive flows might have caused ditching outside the parameters of the waterways,” Nance said.

Producers struggling through this period of low grain prices are not necessarily delaying action, but spreading out payments.

“Granted, the more cash flow you have, the easier it is to pay for something,” Johnson said. “But if you stretch it out a few years, it’ll work out. We’re seeing a little bit of that.”

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.