INDUSTRY INSIDER | April 11, 2024

The Drought Highlights Benefits Of Farm Tile

Original Source:The Daily Freeman Journal

Nick Sealine and Hunter Collicott with Ubben Tiling work to clear a root ball that was impacting farm tile. That green on the ground above is thistles, which can have aggressive roots to go after tile. Daily Freeman-Journal photo by Lori Berglund.

As spring comes to Iowa, the colors continue to intensify on the U.S. Drought Monitor map. The swath of red, indicating extreme drought, now bulges into much of Wright County, northeast Hardin county, and all of Franklin County, as well several counties to the east.

Hamilton, Story and Boone counties now show severe drought, along with the eastern and southern tiers of townships in Webster County. A few lucky counties in northwest Iowa, Buena Vista County onward, are rated just abnormally dry.

Unfortunately, the outlook on NOAA’s drought monitor website is for drought conditions to persist through much of Iowa as the growing season gets underway.

But it can all change so fast. And not everyone sees current conditions quite as dire as the maps may indicate.

On any typical day in March, one can find Junior Ubben, owner of Ubben Tiling, Inc., Stratford, in a hole in the ground, mud on his boots, and a smile on his face.

“We’ve got a hole dug four feet in the ground with water in it right now,” Ubben said. “Our soils around here aren’t nearly as dry as they say — but they will get drier.”

In more than 25 years of farm drainage work, Ubben has gotten to know local soils very well. He cautions that conditions in this prairie pothole area of Iowa can vary widely in as little as a half mile — and he never pretends to predict the weather.

“I’m not going to say that it’s not dry, and there’s not a drought, but there is an area here — around Stratford, Stanhope, Boone — where we had a little more rain last year,” he said. “If you go up north and east in Hamilton County, it’s really dry.”

On this particular day, Ubben was working in a field on Highway 175 between Stanhope and Jewell, an area that benefited from a few more timely rains last year. The mild winter also allowed the snow that did fall to be absorbed into the soil, instead of running off as in most years.

“The snow that we did have went right into the ground because we didn’t have any frost,”Ubben said. “That was a very big benefit.”

The outlook on this particular farm was good in early March. Soil in the top six inches was nice and dry, with available moisture down below.

“Anytime you go below a tile you usually hit water, and that’s the situation here,” Ubben explained. “We were looking for a tile, we got below it and found water, and from the tile up it’s nice and dry.”

If it was just a little later in the year, it might have been a good day to put some seed in the ground. Of course, the soil is still a little chilly, with recent soil temperatures reported in the mid 40s, but clearly warming.

“Right now, the ground is in pretty nice condition,” Ubben said.

What it will be like a few weeks or months down the road is anyone’s guess. But that combination of dry and workable on top, with moisture lurking below, is just what any farmer wants to see.

Listen to Ubben for even a brief time and it’s apparent that his goal is not simply to drain excess water away, but rather to build structures that enhance the soil profile and enable crops to access the moisture they need throughout the growing season.

“We only take excess water,” Ubben explained. “There’s plenty of moisture in the soil profile down to the tile; there’s just no excess water. That’s all the tile does is get rid of excess moisture.”

It surprises many, especially non-farmers, that one of the best ways to help crops access the water they need is actually through farm drainage systems, good old fashion, well-tiled land.

“In 2012, when it was so dry, there was a farm manager in Illinois who did a study, because it was so dry, and the yields that he had on tiled ground were way better than anything he had on ground that wasn’t tiled,” Ubben noted.

Tiled ground can more readily encourage strong root growth early on, so that when the hot and dry conditions of summer hit, the crop has the capability of tapping into deep water.

“What happens in the spring, it gets so wet and it will shallow-root those plants,” Ubben explained. “The roots are so shallow that, when it does dry off, they can’t get down to the moisture.”

In this way, keeping the soil dry in spring gives plants an added boost to tolerate dry conditions later in the season, thus protecting potential yields.

“You stop a lot of bad things from happening by drying the ground out in the spring,” he said. “When the soil dries out, those roots on tiled land are down there and they just have to go below the tile and they’ll start getting water. Where the stuff that’s shallow-rooted, it can’t get its root system down there fast enough.”

Tiled ground also suffers less soil erosion, according to Ubben. Water leaving the surface rapidly can scour the soil and carry it away. But when the water is collected, perhaps in a pond from an intake, it will more slowly be drawn down, thus protecting the soil.

“A lot of people don’t like ponds and intakes, but what ponds really are is a time release so water can slowly go down an intake,” Ubben said. “Most people think it’s just the opposite, that you’re flooding the river, but what normally floods the river is overland water because it can’t get into the ground.”

In the case of high-residue farming, Ubben maintains that adequate farm drainage systems are essential. Crop residue from previous years prevents the soil from drying out and warming up more quickly. By drying the soil, tile helps warm that soil up to be a more inviting environment to welcome seed earlier in the spring.

“The sun doesn’t get to the soil, so with high residue farming, you need more tile so they can get in there and plant earlier,” he explained. “When we were kids, everyone was planting in the middle of May, now it’s the middle of April.”

Things have changed since those days. In Iowa, the countdown is on for the crop insurance planting window to open on April 11 for corn, followed quickly by soybeans on April 21.

Regardless of what the season brings for moisture, Ubben is confident that a good farm drainage system can be part of the plan to increase yields.

“That’s really hard for people to believe, that tile will help in a dry year,” Ubben said. “And in a wet year, it’s just documented time and time again, 30 percent better yields on a well-tiled farm.”