An old concept, a new interest: Farmers find drainage work now can pay high dividends at harvest

SALEM, Ohio — One dairy farm, unable to harvest any crop from a specific field for years, now routinely gets 175-bushel-per-acre corn for silage from it.

On another farm several counties away, yields in a small riverbottom field jumped from 30 bushels per acre to a whopping 205 bushels per acre last year.

They’re both amazing improvements made possible by agricultural drainage work.

Busy work

Roger Greenawalt, who owns Sweet Meadow Farm Drainage in Beloit in Mahoning County and tiled the farms above, said despite drain tile being an old concept, farmers are still paying attention to land improvements that boost their bottom line.

“We’re still really busy on tile. Our only limiting factor is how much we can get done between now and planting,” he said.

The business’ schedule remains full as more large farms update old drainage systems and put in completely new ones.

USDA statistics show more than half of Ohio’s cropland acres are naturally poorly drained. About half of them have already had drainage improvements, leaving some 3.5 million acres of silty clay and silt loam soils statewide that could benefit.

In addition to new systematic tiling systems being installed, farmers are deciding to upgrade or replace random tile systems installed decades ago, too, Greenawalt said.

“It used to be in the old days that farmers tiled not to get stuck. Now, they tile for yield,” Greenawalt said, noting inventions like yield monitors and in-cab GPS systems have allowed farmers to pinpoint problem areas on the farm.

“Farmers found out where they’re losing yield and they’re ready to do something about it,” he said.

“It used to be in the old days that farmers tiled not to get stuck. Now, they tile for yield.”

Roger Greenawalt

Farm drainage contractor

Investment

Drain tile systems are still a good investment, and a profitable one, too, depending your soils. That’s according to Ohio State University ag engineering professor Larry Brown, who said that even in today’s tight farm budgets, a farmer can recoup the cost of tile and manpower used to install it in a reasonable time.

“There’s a lot of interest still out there for drain tile,” Brown said. Drainage school sessions held throughout the Midwest each year still attract big enough crowds to warrant holding them, he pointed out.

Greenawalt agrees, estimating that the roughly $700 per acre it takes to pay for tile and digging work can bring payback in just a handful of years.

That quick return on investment makes installing drain tile attractive even to farmers who rent land.

“Drainage can get a lot of people really excited,” Greenawalt said. “It’s easy to see how it’s worth it when you can go from a total crop loss to having good yields.”

“You can’t even buy an acre of land for $700 to replace the poorly drained one you’ve already got,” he said.

There are other benefits, too, to proper field drainage. Larry Brown said drain tile can be seen as a conservation tool, helping to control nitrogen, fertilizer and affluent discharge from fields.

DIY or hired help?

Higher commodity prices early in 2008 influenced many Ohio farmers to not only consider spending money on drain tile, but to consider buying the equipment and doing it themselves, Brown said.

“Farmers decided to put more money back into the farm, and they weren’t as willing to wait as long as some of the contractors needed to get out there,” Brown explained.

“Even with the guys who bought their own equipment, all drainage contractors across the state are busy and backlogged,” Brown said. There are approximately 250 drainage contractors serving the Buckeye State.

‘Busy’ doesn’t even begin to touch the work demand in northeastern Ohio. The Greenawalt family, which has upgraded its equipment to include total GPS controlled workflow and make their work more efficient, still sees business growing.

For instance, Greenawalt said his crew ran some 100,000 feet of drain tile in January alone. Some farmers whose fields are on the books or have already been done are requesting he run nearly that much on their property alone.

“We’ve got a lot to get done before crops are planted.”

About the Author

Former staff reporter Andrea Zippay wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2001 to 2009. More Stories by Andrea Zippay

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