Feature Story: The NEW Kind of Drainage Tile in Illinois
Drainage Water Management conservation practice working well in Christian County, Illinois
Sadly, late in 2013, landowner Gloria Ozbirn passed away. However, as a long-time landowner and a true steward of the land, we will tell her story, sharing what she learned in the hope that others will also learn.
Gloria Ozbirn had lived on the family farm since 1927. As the only living heir, Gloria oversaw work on the land with help from neighbor Dennis Braeuninger. Dennis owns 45 acres of her family farm and manages day-to-day farm management operations on all Gloria’s 180 acres and his Father’s ground.
Here in Christian County, land is flat and soils are productive. Most producers don’t have many natural resource problems because without sloping ground, soil erosion is much less. With so few marginal or wooded areas, there are limited opportunities for wildlife habitat or wetlands. The primary resource concern here is water - water quality, water quantity and runoff.
“It was so wet we took steps to make our ground more manageable and productive,” said Ozbirn. Back in 2003, she installed a tile system to drain off excess water. It wasn’t long before tenant and neighbor Braeuninger noticed improvements--fields dried out earlier, planting operations were smooth and yields increased.
Having lived on the land and helped her family farm it, Gloria always took special interest in protecting the land. Over the years, she worked with the Christian County SWCD and served as an Associate Director on the Board. Resource protection and conservation were important to her; they always held a special place on her priority list.
Not Just Another Meeting
In 2007 Gloria attended a Lady Landowner meeting where she listened the local District Conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Tony Hammond, talk about a new conservation program option in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Gloria always heard NRCS continually push the need to plan for issues on the farm. Conservation plans. Forest Management Plans. Nutrient Management Plans. She had no need for any of those. But when she heard about the Ground and Surface Water Conservation program and a special incentive for a Drainage Water Management Plan, she contacted Tony and signed up.
Gloria realized that water, rainfall, and wet and dry soil conditions had always decided every single thing on the farm for long enough. “I liked the idea of creating a plan that let us manage all the water rather than the water always managing us,” she said.
In addition to giving more management options, water held in tiles and in the soil profile holds on to nitrates - making them available for use by crop roots or for allowing water to naturally denitrify while held captive in the field. Either way, fewer excess nitrates and damaging nutrients from subsurface drains are transferred to surface waters like drainage ways, ditches, creeks and tributaries where they are carried off to other locations in the watershed. Both these ideas appealed to Gloria. She was eager to make it happen.
NRCS teams were equally eager to launch the project, but cautious about possible impacts the practice can have on neighboring land. “When you tinker with water levels on a drainage system, you have to be aware of how it will affect nearby landowners,” Hammond explained. It wouldn’t be a problem on this project because Gloria and Dennis decided to do it together!
Turn a Plan Into a Practice
In 2008, Gloria’s Drainage Water Management (DWM) Plan was created with help from NRCS technical staff, including a Water Quality Specialist and an Engineer. Cost-share funds and enticing management payments from the Ground and Surface Water Conservation (GSWC) program made the decision an easy one described by Dennis as a 'win-win’ situation.
Using regular EQIP funds, the DWM system was installed and connected to the existing drainage system in May 2010. As part of Gloria’s GSWC and EQIP contract, she would receive payments to install and operate the system for three years. After that, system management is up to the owner/operator.
Because Ozbirn’s landscape in Christian County is so flat, conditions for effective, nearly ideal results were possible. For her 135 acres and his 45, only two water control structures were required to successfully manage, or control all the drainage water. Both units were conveniently located along the road for easy access - the operator can easily open and check water levels and field work is not complicated by in-field structure placement - yet another ideal feature of their system.
How DWM Works
This is what sometimes confused neighboring producers in Christian County and across the country. Simply put, this system allows landowners to adjust the level to which the water table is allowed to rise.
Hammond knows the concepts behind DWM go against logic - both he and Dennis agree it requires 'kind of backwards thinking’ to understand the true power and possibilities behind DWM theories. “Most folks here use tile for one purpose: to get water out of the field. But that’s only PART of the equation,” says Dennis.
With adjustable riser boards, Dennis raises or lowers the outlet level for his drainage system to fit crop needs or field work. “With this practice, I’m in the driver’s seat with water and water levels on these fields. I control it; it doesn’t control me. That’s a good feeling,” he adds. With 2011 only his second growing season with the new system, Dennis still worked with and experimented when to change board heights and make adjustments. “It’s a guessing game sometimes, but I’m still learning,” he laughs.
His goal? To keep moisture near the ground surface during the winter, then let the tile drains dry out the field in time for planting activities. After germination and root establishment, adjustments to raise the water table to just below the crop’s root zone create the perfect soil and moisture growing environment for this year’s corn crop. “As a farmer, I want to be in control of my equipment, my product, my farm, and my soil environment. With this system, I’m more in control than ever. What’s not to love about that?”
While it’s too early to confirm crop or yield improvements through DWM, research and data from NRCS, the University of Illinois, Purdue, University of Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio State Universities, and others indicate nutrient loads can be reduced by as much as 45% or even more. Other benefits:
Protect & improve water quality
Enhance crop production from more available soil-water & nutrients
Reduce organic matter oxidation to retain soil productivity & minimize atmospheric carbon release
Reduce wind erosion losses and air quality problems due to dust
Provide more seasonal soil saturation or shallow flooding habitat for wildlife
To learn more about Drainage Water Management or other NRCS conservation solutions, visit your local NRCS county office or find us online at www.il.nrcs.usda.gov. To view additional drainage guidance, visit http://www.wq.uiuc.edu/dg.
Drainage Water Management Conservation Practice Working Well (PDF, 198kb)
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