Crops were affected last year by excessive rainfall in early summer. The amount of loss was heavily dependent upon the drainage of each field.
Drainage has always been a challenge for northwestern Ohio. The area could not sustain communities and farming until technology allowed the development of drainage systems in the latter part of the 1800s. This allowed roads and rail lines to be built connecting communities and markets.
These drainage systems also allowed northwestern Ohio to become the breadbasket of Ohio. What was once primarily a swamp became highly productive farmland that eventually built and supported a thriving agricultural industry and communities.
Today, adequate drainage is still the most limiting factor of yields. Farmers remove excess water from wet soils for timely equipment operations and to provide a healthy environment for plant growth.
Improved access of equipment provides more time for field activities, and can help extend the crop season and reduce crop damage at harvest. Besides providing more oxygen for growing roots, less excess water in the root zone decreases soil erosion, improves soil structure, and increases nutrient uptake.
In Ohio, agricultural drainage systems are surface and subsurface.
Pooling water on the surface and excess subsurface moisture both interfere with planting and may damage existing crops.
Surface drainage can affect the water table by reducing the volume of water entering the soil. This is done by leveling and smoothing land, the construction of surface water inlets to subsurface drains, and the construction of shallow ditches and grass waterways to open ditches and streams.
Land smoothing or leveling removes soil from high spots in a field, and/or fills low spots and depressions where water may pond. Shallow ditches may divert excess water to grass waterways and open ditches.
Subsurface drainage removes excess water from the plant-root zone by lowering the water table. It controls the water table through a series of drainage pipes, or tile, installed below the soil, usually just below the root zone.
In Ohio, subsurface drainpipe is typically installed at a depth of 30 to 40 inches and 20 to 80 feet apart. The network generally opens to a ditch or stream.
Subsurface drainage requires minor maintenance of the outlets and outlet ditches. For the same amount of acreage, they generally are more expensive to construct than surface drainage improvements.
It has been suggested that field drainage causes more soluble phosphorus to enter the waterways of the Western Lake Erie Basin, which may encourage algae growth in the lake. Ohio State University has established edge-of-field studies to quantify how much soluble phosphorus may be leaving fields via surface and subsurface drainage.
The studies are in progress, but preliminary data has suggested that only a few fields may contribute to the problem and the amount of soluble phosphorus leaving these fields may be dependent on the tillage system and the soil test phosphorus levels.
Regardless, farmers do not want to lose phosphorus from their fields since phosphorus fertilizer is an expense.
Counties have agencies in place to provide expertise to local farmers to properly construct field drainage systems: Soil and Water Conservation District offices and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources and Conservation Service.
The conservation district offices provide technical support for drainage structures to farmers, and also maintain the county drainage ditches and remove obstructions from local streams. The other agency oversees federal programs that encourage farmers to follow conservation practices with financial and technical assistance, such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program.
Drainage improvements are not limited to farmland. Many homes use similar subsurface systems to prevent water damage to foundations and basements.
Golf courses use surface and subsurface systems. Houses, streets and buildings in urban areas depend heavily on drainage systems of plastic or metal gutters and concrete pipes or channels.
Drainage is a shared concern. The cooperation between farmers and urban residents has made northwestern Ohio a thriving and successful area. This cooperation will need to continue in the future for the economic survival of both.
Lentz is extension educator for agriculture and natural resources for The Ohio State University Extension Service in Hancock County. He can be reached at 419-422-3851 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lentz can be heard with Vaun Wickerham on weekdays at 6:35 a.m. on WFIN, at 5:43 a.m. on WKXA-FM, and at 5:28 a.m. at 106.3 The Fox.
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