An up-and-coming conservation practice offered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helps farmers and ranchers manage water on their land, keep water clean and better cope with extreme weather like drought.
Drainage water management enables landowners to determine when and how much water leaves farms through underground tiles and drainage ditches. Underground tiles lay beneath fields removing excess water from the soil subsurface.
“Since landowners don’t need the same drainage intensity at all times during the year, this practice lets them use their drainage water in a way that’s most advantageous to them, their crops and the environment,” NRCS Senior Project Leader Paul Sweeney said.
Farmers can incorporate this practice, which involves installing a water-level control structure on tile lines or even in open drainage ditches.
The water-level control structure gives landowners the ability to manage the subsurface water level by turning on and off drainage systems. By doing this, landowners can improve water quality by minimizing unnecessary tile drainage and reducing the amount of nutrients that leave farm fields.
“There are so many aspects of farming that we cannot control, but this low-cost water control system really gives you more options to manage and control your water,” Sweeney said. “It puts that power into farmers’ hands.”
Farmers and ranchers can use drainage water management systems to retain water that crops can use for growth and production later in the season, which is helpful during times of drought. Water is important for crops to grow, but too much water can hurt them. Just as this practice allows farmers to bring water to crops, they can also use it to remove water.
“With this practice, I’m in the driver’s seat with water and water levels on these fields,” said Dennis Braeuninger, a farmer in Illinois. “I control it; it doesn’t control me. That’s a good feeling.”
Drainage water management is best suited for flat, uniform cropland with a slope of 1 percent or less, but it may be considered for fields with slopes up to 2 percent, depending on the layout of the drainage system. For lands with steeper ground, NRCS can offer other beneficial conservation practices.