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Drainage a major concern in South Dakota

Photo by Amanda RadkeChris Hay, Dennis Todey, Jay Gilbertson, Wayne Smith, Kevin Alverson and Janet Ortley participated in the Ag Drainage Forum at the 2011 Dakotafest.

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Each year, a growing number of pasture acres in the region are tore up to be planted for corn or soybeans. In the past couple of years, the area has seen unusual amounts of water in the spring and early summer months, leaving many of these fields with large amounts of acres drowned out. A growing urgency to address these drainage issues was the topic of discussion at Dakotafest 2011, in the Ag Drainage Forum.

Chris Hay, South Dakota State University (SDSU) Ag and Biosystems Engineering Soil and Water Extension specialist; Dennis Todey, SDSU Extension specialist in climatology; Jay Gilbertson, East Dakota Water Development District; Kevin Alverson of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association; Wayne Smith of the South Dakota Farm Bureau; and Janet Ortley, USDA-NRCS SD State Conservationist; were the featured speakers at the forum, where they discussed the benefits of proper drainage from a farmer’s perspective.

“From my outlook, there are two key areas that are beneficial when we talk about drainage – environment and economics,” said Alverson. “The first is the environment. We can reduce runoff and topsoil loss. It also takes soil from a saturated status to an unsaturated status. Allowing that air to move into the soil opens up the possibility for a lot of different things. Reduced tillage as you move West becomes a greater possibility, and it also makes the soil healthy. As more oxygen moves into the soil, microbes are able to break down the crop residue and build organic matter in those areas. Otherwise these things wouldn’t take place. We are able to reduce runoff and erosion, which is really significant.”



The second benefit is the economic aspect of adding drainage tile to fields.

“When we look at long-term trends, the increase in yield we have seen on our farm from drainage tile is sometimes the difference between having a crop and not having a crop,” he added. “We have seen 30-50 percent yield increases in fields that have added tile, which has been measured by universities like SDSU or the University of Minnesota. So, when we think about that with today’s commodity prices, if you see an increase of 50-100 bushel of corn, you’re looking at $300-$700 of additional revenue from those acres that would be impacted by the drainage. I had one farm in particular that we installed drainage tile in the field that had about 20 percent of the ground that had been previously drowned out, and this year it’s going to be one of my most-productive fields just because it had the ability to take up that extra moisture when we had those large rainfalls.”



Alverson talks about these issues on a daily basis on Twitter. Find him at “@cornfarmerkeith” or check out http://www.sdcorn.org or http://www.trueenvironmentalists.com.

Smith also talked about the benefits of reducing erosion from adding drainage tile to fields.

“SDSU did measurements on my land and found more phosphorous running off the surface of my fields,” Smith explained. “The phosphorous was so low in the tile water, they quit measuring. If rain comes at a normal amount, erosion is nothing, but it also depends on the decision of your drainage plan, which should be done over a year’s time. Work with your neighbors as much as possible to minimize erosion and address drainage issues.”

“The more we can work together with our neighbors and discuss the impacts of drainage issues, the better we can avoid roadblocks later on because of a good discussion,” added Ortley.

So, what can the state do better to address drainage issues? Hays tackled this question.

“It’s been repeatedly shown where drainage is an issue in the area,” he said. “By lowering the water table, less will run off the surface. The golden rule of drainage is drain only what you don’t need; tile holds back some of the nitrates in the soil. Ultimately, we need to build surface ditches. Proper outlets for drainage tile is the big challenge we face in our infrastructure.”

Looking at weather patterns and rainfall, Todey said without proper drainage, farmers can expect issues.

“We have seen a large increase in precipitation each year, and part of the challenge is the precipitation we receive at different times of the year,” he explained. “There isn’t a good way to get fall precipitation off because there is a decrease in temperatures. Any place that doesn’t drain well isn’t going to get better without tile.”

“To me, drainage tile is 100 percent positive with lots of benefits,” added Gilbertson. “While there are possible negatives, chances are your neighbor doesn’t want the water running through his fields or seeing the river stay higher longer. Ultimately, your decision to add tile impacts your neighbors, too, so start conversations now.”


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