ONARGA, Ill. — In the summer of 1987, John Wilken installed
new system tile in several fields in Iroquois County, but due to budget
limitations, 20 acres did not get completed, and there was no drainage at all.
A severe drought in 1988 took a toll on all crops, but
during harvest Wilken noticed something interesting. Those 20 acres without tile
had a much higher yield.
Why? The tile system had done its job: it drained spring
rains and removed excess water.
But had those tiles gone too far? Did they remove moisture
the crops would need later to survive the drought?
“It made perfect sense to me. Those acres that weren’t
totally drained held on to moisture that came in handy when my crops needed it
most,” Wilken said.
Since then, researchers at the University of Illinois and
elsewhere began experimenting with a similar idea. They devised a new concept to
allow customized flexibility with tile drainage systems.
When Wilken learned about this in 2001, he contacted the
Natural Resources Conservation Service and signed up to install “water control
structures” on his existing tile system.
In 2002, Wilken and NRCS developed a plan for two fields —
they set up 200 acres with five structures and three structures on another 160
acres. All structures were located in filter strips along the road, providing
easy access to monitor and to make adjustments.
Wilken received financial assistance to apply the practice
through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, which reduced his
Kelly German, current district conservationist in Iroquois
County, said Wilken was one of the early adopters for using Drainage Water
Management, often called DWM.
“John’s objective was to save moisture and hold back
nitrogen to keep it out of his drainage water,” German said.
Twelve years later, Wilken still is a believer. He has the
management process with the structures down to a science. He applies anhydrous
in the fall and shuts off drainage for the winter.
The drains hold back water, and the water table rises until
he opens them early in March to prepare for planting. After planting, he closes
them part way, allowing the water table to reach growing crops.
“It’s easy to do, and I can say that my crops benefit —
especially when it’s dry. Come July, I still have some subsoil moisture when
other fields are bone dry,” Wilken said.
NRCS’ Drainage Water Management practice can be part of a
new tile system or added to existing tiles.
“My 25-year-old tiles and even my 50-year-old tiles can
handle the water and the pressure just fine,” Wilken said.
With the complete support of his landlord, Wilken installed
structures on her farm and also installed more on his own ground. His
willingness to try this “new” idea initially surprised some of his neighbors and
caught the eye of other farmers and curious drainage contractors, as well.
“It’s a good long-term investment that needs minimal
maintenance,” he said.
Nationally, NRCS maintains a detailed Conservation Practice
Standard for DWM and recently embarked on an effort to promote the practice in
10 Midwestern states.
“The potential for improving crop health in weather extremes
is only one benefit,” said Ivan Dozier, NRCS’ state conservationist. “Reducing
nitrogen levels in water bodies in Illinois, in the Mississippi River basin, and
beyond can really make a difference and improve water quality.”
Wilken has farmed in east-central Illinois for 47 years. He
has a history of making wise land use choices on his farm and served on the
county Soil and Water Conservation District board from 2008 to 2012.
He uses no-till and strip-till on most of his ground, has
riparian buffer strips and field borders, a nutrient management plan, and
recently entered into the Conservation Stewardship Program utilizing cornstalk
testing for nitrogen levels.
Wilken is watching the hot new trends for cover crops, but
has yet to decide how to tailor it to his operation — for now.
To learn more about this conservation practice, watch NRCS’
short video that uses animation to show how DWM works underground: www.youtube.com/watch?vj4mYch4RFsY.