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Conservation Corner

Drainage Water Management

Tue, December 13, 2011

The NEW Kind of Drainage Tile in Illinois

Drainage Water Management conservation practice working well in Christian County, Illinois Gloria Ozbirn has lived on the family farm since 1927. As the only living heir, Gloria oversees work on the land with help from neighbor Dennis Braeuninger.  Dennis owns 45 acres of her family farm and manages day-to-day farm management operations on all Gloria’s 180 acres and his Father’s ground.

Here in Christian County, land is flat and soils are productive. Most producers don’t have many natural resource problems because without sloping ground, soil erosion is much less. With so few marginal or wooded areas, there are limited opportunities for wildlife habitat or wetlands. The primary resource concern here is water—water quality, water quantity, and runoff.

“It was so wet we took steps to make our ground more manageable and productive,” says Ozbirn.  In 2003, she installed a tile system to drain off excess water. It wasn’t long before tenant and neighbor Braeuninger noticed improvements—fields dried out earlier, planting operations were smooth and yields increased.

Having lived on the land and helped her family farm it, Gloria always took special interest in protecting the land. Over the years, she worked with the Christian County SWCD and served as an Associate Director on the Board. Resource protection and conservation were important to her; they still hold a special place on her priority list.

Not Just Another Meeting

In 2007 Gloria attended a Lady Landowner meeting where she listened to NRCS District Conservationist Tony Hammond talk about a new conservation program option in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Gloria always heard NRCS continually push the need to plan for issues on the farm. Conservation plans. Forest Management Plans. Nutrient Management Plans. But when she heard about the Ground and Surface Water Conservation program and a special incentive for a Drainage Water Management Plan, she contacted Tony and signed up.

Gloria realized that water, rainfall, and wet and dry soil conditions had always decided every single thing on the farm for long enough. “I liked the idea of creating a plan that let us manage all the water rather than the water always managing us,” she says.

In addition to giving more management options, water held in tiles and in the soil profile holds on to nitrates—making them available for use by crop roots or for allowing water to naturally denitrify while held captive in the field. Either way, fewer excess nitrates and damaging nutrients from subsurface drains are transferred to surface waters like drainage ways, ditches, creeks and tributaries where they are carried off to other locations in the watershed. Both these ideas appealed to Gloria. She was eager to make it happen.

NRCS teams were equally eager to launch the project, but cautious about possible impacts the practice can have on neighboring land. “When you tinker with water levels on a drainage system, you have to be aware of how it will affect nearby landowners,” Hammond explains. Not a problem on this project. Gloria and Dennis decided to do it together!

Turn a Plan Into a Practice

In 2008, Gloria’s Drainage Water Management (DWM) Plan was created with help from NRCS technical staff, including a Water Quality Specialist and an Engineer.  Cost-share funds and enticing management payments from the Ground and Surface Water Conservation (GSWC) program made the decision an easy one described by Dennis as a ‘win-win’ situation.

Using regular EQIP funds, the DWM system was installed and connected to the existing drainage system in May 2010. As part of Gloria’s GSWC and EQIP contract, she would receive payments to install and operate the system for three years. After that, system management is up to the owner/operator

Because Ozbirn’s landscape in Christian County is so flat, conditions for effective, nearly ideal results were possible. For her 135 acres and his 45, only two water control structures were required to successfully manage, or control all the drainage water. Both units were conveniently located along the road for easy access—the operator can easily open and check water levels and field work is not complicated by in-field structure placement—yet another ideal feature of their system.

How DWM Works

This is what sometimes confuses neighboring producers in Christian County and across the country. Simply put, this system allows landowners to adjust the level to which the water table is allowed to rise.

Hammond knows the concepts behind DWM go against logic—both he and Dennis agree it requires ‘kind of backwards thinking’ to understand the true power and possibilities behind DWM theories. “Most folks here use tile for one purpose: to get water out of the field. But that’s only PART of the equation,” says Dennis.

With adjustable riser boards, Dennis raises or lowers the outlet level for his drainage system to fit crop needs or field work. “With this practice, I’m in the driver’s seat with water and water levels on these fields. I control it; it doesn’t control me. That’s a good feeling,” he adds. With 2011 only his second growing season with the new system, Dennis still works with and experiments when to change board heights and make adjustments. “It’s a guessing game sometimes, but I’m still learning,” he laughs.

His goal? To keep moisture near the ground surface during the winter, then let the tile drains dry out the field in time for planting activities. After germination and root establishment, adjustments to raise the water table to just below the crop’s root zone create the perfect soil and moisture growing environment for this year’s corn crop. “As a farmer, I want to be in control of my equipment, my product, my farm, and my soil environment. With this system, I’m more in control than ever. What’s not to love about that?”

Many Benefits
While it’s too early to confirm crop or yield improvements through DWM, research and data from NRCS, the University of Illinois, Purdue, University of Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio State Universities, and others indicate nutrient loads can be reduced by as much as 45% or even more. Other benefits:

Protect & improve water quality
Enhance crop production from more available soil-water & nutrients
Reduce organic matter oxidation to retain soil productivity & minimize atmospheric carbon release
Reduce wind erosion losses and air quality problems due to dust
Provide more seasonal soil saturation or shallow flooding habitat for wildlife

To learn more about Drainage Water Management or other NRCS conservation solutions, visit your local NRCS county office or find us online at To vi.ew additional drainage guidance, visit

NRCS - Helping People Help the Land
An Equal Opportunity Provider and Employer


Next CSP ranking deadline announced

Tue, December 13, 2011

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Announces Sign-Up Period for Conservation Stewardship Program

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) today announced that the ranking period cut-off date for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is January 13, 2012. Producers interested in CSP should submit applications to their local NRCS office by the deadline so that their applications can be considered during the first ranking period of 2012.

“CSP is one of our most popular conservation programs, and we expect to receive many applications,” NRCS Chief Dave White said. “I encourage all farmers and ranchers who are interested in applying to contact their local NRCS office as soon as possible so they can meet the deadline.”

CSP is offered in all 50 states, and the Pacific and Caribbean areas through continuous sign-ups. The program provides many conservation benefits including improvement of water and soil quality, wildlife habit enhancements and adoption of conservation activities that address the effects of climate change. Eligible lands include cropland, pastureland, rangeland, nonindustrial private forest land and agricultural land under the jurisdiction of an Indian tribe.

A CSP self-screening checklist is available to help potential applicants determine if CSP is suitable for their operation. The checklist highlights basic information about CSP eligibility requirements, contract obligations and potential payments. It is available from local NRCS offices and on the CSP Web page.

As part of the CSP application process, applicants will work with NRCS field personnel to complete the resource inventory using a Conservation Measurement Tool (CMT). The CMT determines the conservation performance for existing and new conservation activities.  The applicant’s conservation performance will be used to determine eligibility, ranking and payments.

In 2010 alone, nearly 21,000 applicants enrolled in CSP, putting additional conservation on 25.2 million acres, about the size of the state of Kentucky, to improve water and soil quality, enhance wildlife habitat and address the effects of climate change.

Visit the NRCS National Web site, and connect with an NRCS office near you.


Consider Cover Crops

Fri, August 26, 2011

Cover crops aren’t anything new. Ag producers have used cover crops for decades—in fact they used to be a standard part of every farmer’s fertilizer strategy. However, they might be new to you.  You may be changing your operation in search of ‘greener’ techniques or you’re simply in search of less expensive ways to manage nutrients and limit inputs. Either way, the folks at USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service want to share their crash course’ in cover crops for Illinois producers.

Nine good reasons to consider using cover crops:

      1. Cover Crops Defined: A close-growing crop that temporarily protects the soil, improves tilth, and can increase nutrient availability.

      2. Cover crops like rye, vetch and forage radishes are environmentally beneficial. With proper management, they will not inhibit yields on
        various crop production systems, including no-till and organic farming. In fact, they can increase yields and improve soil health.

      3.  Cover crops like cereal rye, oats, or winter wheat should be planted as soon as possible after harvest on fields where residue will not
          adequately protect against wind and water erosion during winter and spring. Seeding from late-August to mid-September is recommended.
          Cereal cover crops need 30-40 days for good growth before a hard frost. Cover crops such as oats and forage radishes need to be planted
        45-60 days prior to a hard frost.

    4.  Cover crops are especially recommended after low residue crops such as soybeans or corn silage grown on erodible land.  Many crops can  
        be used for cover, although cereal rye is probably most common. Legume cover crops add nitrogen to the soil for subsequent grain crops.
    5.  Cover crops can be air seeded into standing or late-harvested crops like corn or soybeans.

    6.  The cover crop should be killed in spring by mowing or herbicide application. Tillage is not recommended on erodible soils.  Early kill is
        important to reduce the risk that the cover crop will interfere with establishment of the subsequent crop.

    7.  Small grain cover crops increase surface cover and water infiltration, and scavenge unused nitrogen.

    8.  Some other cover crop options, like turnips and oats are also suitable for grazing by livestock and wildlife.  Using a mix of cover crops that
        have different types of root systems improves soil quality and water-holding capacity in row crop and livestock operations.  Benefits include
        water soluble nutrients available for next year’s crop.

    9.  Cover crops add organic matter on soils where low residue crops are produced. Cover crops can also be used to reduce nitrate leaching.

To sign up or access more information about Cover Crop options, EQIP, or other NRCS programs, contact the NRCS office serving your county or visit