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PFR Report

The Influence of Tile Drainage and Irrigation on Yield

Published on Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Beck’s Practical Farm Research (PFR)® data has shown that early planting is one of the keys to maximizing yield potential. In 2017, much of the Midwest faced adverse weather conditions which made it a challenge to find optimum windows to plant early. In such situations, many farmers find themselves wondering what options they have. Throughout much of the Corn Belt, tile drainage has proven to be a very valuable tool for helping soil conditions during early portions of the planting season. Though tile has shown value in the Midwest, one popular theory is that tile won’t work as a long-term fix for the challenging soils in areas such as southern Illinois. 

In collaboration with AGREM, LLC., CropX Inc., 360 Water Solutions, Netafim™, and Nutra Drip, the southern Illinois PFR team started extensive water management studies in 2016. These studies were designed to evaluate various water management options, from drainage to irrigation. In addition to a tile spacing and tile depth study, the team also set out to evaluate sub-irrigation and drip-irrigation. In the tile spacing study, we compare tile spacing depths of 24 and 36 in. spaced at 15, 30 and 60 ft. in a traditional pattern tiled layout. In the sub-irrigation portion of the study, the tile was placed on contour. This allowed water to be removed early in the season, but then allowed water to be pumped back into the tile lines once the soils became dry. There were two treatments in the sub-irrigation portion, a sensor based-irrigation using CropX sensors as well as manual sub-irrigation. In the drip-irrigation portion of the study, drip-lines were placed at a depth of 13 in. below the soil surface, both with and without tile, in 30 ft. spacings. 

Over the past two years, we have seen a strong yield advantage in the tiled treatments with both corn and soybeans. Across all tile spacings in the corn study, the 24 in. tile depth averaged a 38.8 Bu./A. increase while the 36 in. tile depth averaged a 35.4 Bu./A. increase, when compared to the control (Figure 1A). The same trend was observed with soybean yields, with the 24 in. tile depth averaging a 6.5 Bu./A. increase and the 36 in. tile depth averaging a 3.9 Bu./A. increase over the control (Figure 1B). Additionally, we also found that as we decreased our tile spacing from 60 ft. to 15 ft., our yields increased as a result of the better drainage. Because narrower tile spacing adds a substantial cost, it’s important that we find a happy medium that will improve yields without breaking the bank.

Figure 1A: Tile Spacing Yield Advantage in Corn


Figure 1B: Tile Spacing Yield Advantage in Soybeans

At the 36 in. tile depth, corn yields fell by 13.8 Bu./A. and soybean yields were reduced by 2.2 Bu./A. when tile spacing was increased from 15 ft. to 30 ft. We observed less yield penalty when moving from a 15 ft. to 30 ft. spacing at the 24 in. depth, with decreases in yield of only 0.3 Bu./A. for corn and 1.9 Bu./A. in soybeans.

For the sub-irrigation portion of the study, we observed the largest yield response in both corn and soybeans with the sensor based sub-irrigation treatment. This proves that without the guidance of the soil moisture sensor, we fell short on watering with the manual sub-irrigation treatment. We observed that drainage was more significant in corn versus soybeans, which was most likely because soybeans are more capable of compensating for a reduction in stand. Consequently, contour drainage resulted in the second highest yield advantage in corn (Figures 2A & 2B).

Figure 2A: Sub-Irrigation Yield Advantage in Corn


Figure 2B: Sub-Irrigation Yield Advantage in Soybeans

In 2016, we observed increased moisture at deeper depths of the soil profile when tile was used with drip-irrigation. Additionally, tile allowed for better drainage in the spring, resulting in increased stands. Then, in 2017, the biggest yields we observed were in the treatments that combined tile drainage and drip–irrigation (Figure 3). Over the two years, the combination of tile and drip-irrigation resulted in an average corn yield increase of 13.8 Bu./A. when compared to drip-irrigation without tile. This further proves the importance of drainage in southern Illinois. Furthermore, fertigation capabilities were added to this water management study in 2017, which paid dividends in both corn and soybeans. We believe that having the ability to fertigate was especially important on soybeans as it contributed to the highest yield we have documented at this site at 113.6 Bu./A.

Figure 3. Two-Year Water Management Yield Advantage in Corn.

Further testing is neccesary to fully understand what water management practices will rise to the top in PFR. However, with two years under our belt, we are starting to gain a better understanding of how moisture changes throughout the soil profile with the various treatments. For two years in a row, drainage as well as irrigation greatly influenced crop yields. Stay tuned for updates on this project as we enter our third year of testing in 2018.

Click the links below to view these full studies.


Practical Farm Research (PFR)® is a registered trademark of Beck’s Superior Hybrids, Inc. Netafim™ is a trademark of Netafim USA.

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