Now is the time to inspect your tile drains

Basic tips that will help you keep your tile fields well drained.

Spring it is a good time to inspect field tiles. Continual maintenance needs to be done to guarantee that the tiles function properly. Photo by Shelby Burlew | Michigan State University Extension

Spring it is a good time to inspect field tiles. Continual maintenance needs to be done to guarantee that the tiles function properly. Photo by Shelby Burlew | Michigan State University Extension

Subsurface drainage is used to remove excess water from poorly drained land in agricultural settings. Tile drainage plays an important role in Michigan’s agricultural industry. Michigan State University Extension recognizes that tile drainage improves infiltration and reduces runoff, increases water storage and creates a suitable environment for plant growth by removing excess water. Proper installation is extremely important but even proper installation can fail if tile lines are not maintained. Inspection and continual maintenance should be done to ensure that the tile lines are functioning properly. Regular maintenance of tile lines is an important management practice to ensure agricultural productivity on tile-drained land in Michigan. While farmers are working the fields and planting this spring, this provides an excellent time to inspect field tile lines and outlets.

Effective tile lines are very important to crop productivity and water quality in some areas of Michigan. Below are examples of simple maintenance steps to make sure that tiled fields are working efficiently:

  • Monitor tile lines at times of peak flow (usually seen during April, May and June in Michigan)
  • Conduct regular field inspections looking for unexpected wet spots and evidence of soil erosion
  • Monitor tile inlets and outlets prior to, during and after application of manure (Refer to MSU Extension Bulletin WO-1037: Tile-Drained Land)
  • Remove any debris around the tile inlet and clear obstructions from tile drain outlets
  • Install rodent guards
  • Repair animal burrows, blowouts and sink holes immediately
  • Properly install tile outlets above drainage ditches
  • Properly maintain drainage ditches
  • Test the quality of water leaving the outlets by analyzing it for sediment, nutrients, bacteria, pesticides and metals

Cleaning tile lines is one of the simplest ways to maintain the health and effectiveness of tile. A tile-cleaning contractor can determine if the tile is damaged or not working properly. Plant roots can clog the end of tile lines or, in some cases it can break through the lines and damage the tile. This is an exception to the rule. Properly engineered tile lines should withstand plant roots no matter what crop is planted. Tile-cleaning contractors may be found by contacting the Michigan Chapter of Land Improvement Contractors of America.

Inspect tile lines for the presence of iron ochre. Iron ochre is a red, yellow or tan gelatinous material that adheres to tile wall openings or forms around the outside of the buried portion of the drain tile and obstructs flow. It is commonly found in sandy and organic muck soils. Wet and dry soils (fields under irrigation) are also susceptible to ochre formation. Ongoing maintenance is the only option for controlling iron ochre formation.

Field drain tiles do not last forever. Keep them clean and well maintained and they should last for many seasons. For more information and resources on tile drainage maintenance and more visit University of Wisconsin Extension Discovery Farms Program. And for information on possible United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs and eligibility for tile construction or management consult your Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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