Alabama: Pattern Tile Drainage – Improving Soggy Soils

Pattern tile drainage is a practice Midwestern producers have long employed on farm operations. Now, some Alabama producers with soggy soils are laying pattern tile in hopes of more manageable land.

Alabama Farmers Installing Drainage

Several farmers in western and central Alabama have made pattern tile installations on-farm.

Drew Wendland, of Autauga Farming Company in Autaugaville, Alabama is hopeful the installation will allow better management on a tract of land in Montgomery County. His ultimate goal is to create the perfect growing environment for his crops.

“By draining excess water, we are able to eliminate one more variable that may negatively impact our crops during the growing season,” Wendland said. “With irrigation and tile in this field, we believe we can give our crops the best possible chance to reach maximum yield potential with intensive management practices.”

Dr. Audrey Gamble, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System soil health specialist, said there are certainly some benefits to installing tile drainage in waterlogged soils when it comes to soil health.

“Soil is more prone to compaction when it is wet. Running equipment over poorly-drained land can have a negative impact on soil structure,” Gamble said. “With drainage, fields dry out faster allowing farmers to run equipment without as much risk for compaction.”

Cost is another factor producers carefully consider before a widespread pattern tile installation.

“Economically, installing a system like this requires lots of thought and deliberation,” Wendland said. “We thought about the installation price in terms of lost yield and wasted inputs in previous years. While there are other options with different price tags, this was the logical next step in improving this field and increasing productivity.”

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Tile Drainage Takes Different Shapes

Regional Extension Agent, Brandon Dillard, said heavier soils in the northern part of the Wiregrass have benefitted from tile drainage. Some northern parts of the Wiregrass have the same type of drain tile, while others use a drainage tile and riser combination. This works in conjunction with terraces to remove water from the fields without eroding the land.

“Drainage tile in southeast Alabama serves two purposes,” Dillard said. “One being to remove excess rain water from the field and the other is to reduce or even eliminate erosion and broken terraces.”

Terraces are built in conjunction with underground pipe and ‘risers’ to help move the water from the field to a waterway, ditch or creek. The water from rain or irrigation moves down the terrace channels, until it reaches the riser. The riser is a piece of the pipe that stands above ground and has holes in it. Risers allow the water to enter the underground pipe and can safely exit the field without eroding any topsoil.

Dillard said this type of water removal is extremely important when big rain events occur.

Pattern Tile Drainage

Bob Clark, of Clark Farm Drainage Incorporated, has installed tile drainage in central and west Alabama, Mississippi, Ohio, Louisiana and Mexico. Clark’s team serves these out-of-state farms in addition to the many farms they serve in their home state of Indiana.

Clark and his team use GPS and other mapping technology to determine the drainage area and design parameter—or drainage coefficient.

“On this Alabama project, our drainage coefficient is a half of an inch. Typically projects we work on in Indiana operate on a three-eighths inch drainage coefficient,” Clark said. “This just means we are trying to remove three-eighths of an inch of water per acre, per day.”

Clark and his team use software to design a custom pattern and then lay pipe two to three feet underground. Pipe is laid at differing angles and connects underground. This pipe will remove excess water at all sites. In some cases, can be set up to irrigate from underground.

In Alabama, producers receive an average of 55 inches of rainfall per year, while Indiana producers  average 40 inches per year. Clark said the average drainage coefficient is important to the overall design of a pattern tile installation.

Ultimately, tile patterns are site-specific and made according to the desired end result of a producer.

Possible Negative Effects

Both Gamble and Clark said nutrient leaching is a negative impact of tile drainage.

“Using best management practices, such as cover cropping are extremely important for reducing nutrient losses in tile-drained land,” Gamble said. “The extensive root systems of certain cover crop species, like cereal rye, can scavenge for nutrients and prevent leaching losses.”

Additional Information

Gamble said most Alabama soils are well-drained and will not benefit from drainage systems. However, there are exceptions.

Dillard encourages farmers or landowners to contact local Extension agents. In addition, the local Natural Resource Conservation Service can help with designing or cost share opportunities.

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