New sites added to tile monitoring project

Gloria Hafemeister
More and more farmers are recognizing the benefits of tiling land to improve drainage and over-all soil health.  UW-Discovery Farms has found that corrugated plastic tile is better than the older concrete tile systems.

GREEN BAY - The UW Discovery Farms’ newest project is in partnership with farmers and local resources in northeastern Wisconsin.

The program is adding 24 new sites to its tile monitoring project with farms in Brown, Kewaunee/Southern Door, Manitowoc, and Shawano Counties.  These farms will monitor tiles and data collection will begin this fall as a part of Discovery Farms’ focus on the relationship between soil health and drainage.

“There are a lot of farmers wanting to do the right thing for water quality, but we have as many questions as we have answers,” explained Aaron Pape, UW Discovery Farms tile drainage education coordinator.

“This project will be able to couple management information with on-farm water quality data to identify farming practices that reduce nutrient losses to tile drains. We also want to see how soil health influences nutrient movement to tiles.”

Working with so many farmers in such a small area is a new approach for the program. Monitoring sites will include one centrally located site in each county that will have intensive edge-of-field monitoring and several surrounding satellite sites where periodic grab sampling will take place. Results from grab sampling sites will then be related back to intensive sites.

Aaron Pape

“We want to increase the opportunities to partner with farmers and create a network of information sharing between farmers and researchers centered around tile drainage and water quality,” stated Eric Cooley, UW Discovery Farms co-director. “We’ve had to turn down so many farmers in the past because edge-of-field monitoring is too expensive to have on every field. This project will provide additional monitoring options, which means a greater number of farmers using data and connecting to more local resources to identify feasible management strategies to protect water quality.”

Tile failures

During a recent meeting in Jefferson, Pape talked about the importance of monitoring fields to check for tile failures.

“Proper management in tile drained landscapes is key to reducing nutrient losses,” he says. “It is less expensive to maintain the tiles and prevent losses and more effective than it is to treat the water at the end of the pipe.”

Pape recommends an annual inspection of systems, looking for blowouts in the field or blockages at the outlets.

“It’s easy to identify a blowout in spring,” he says. “Walk in the field and listen. You can actually hear the sucking.  In some cases you will see bubbling. The ground where a blowout occurs is like a sink hole in the field.”

He stresses, “Blowouts, if untreated, can get extremely larger.”

While tiles are a benefit for soil drainage, when there is a blow-out they will actually wash soil through the tiles.

Monitoring tile systems and surface intakes can prevent nutrient run-off and improve soil health.

According to Pape, there are many reasons for blowouts including old tiles such as clay or concrete breaking, separation of tiles, and inadequate venting. Venting problems often occur because of adding more tile without properly sizing them or changing the vent system to accommodate the increased volume.

“Go out in your fields and look for the outlet. Make sure the tiles are running,” he advises.

In the Discovery Farm’s tile monitoring program the researchers found that sites with higher concentrations of soil were older cement or clay tile systems with surface intakes and or tile collapses.  Sites with corrugated plastic had almost no soil loss compared to sites with cement or clay.

He suggests modernizing old cement or clay tile systems with corrugated plastic pipe.

“Gaps at the connections of cement and clay pipes are larger than the perforations in modern corrugated plastic tile and allow more soil particles to pass through,” he points out.

He also suggests removing the need for surface intakes and preventing collapse of tile by checking for degradation over time, checking venting and blockages by animals.

Also, by adequately sizing the mains and using proper joints, tile collapse can be prevented.

Pape points out that soil and phosphorus are generally lost from the soil surface and not from tile lines. Nitrogen, however, can be transported in tile lines.

“Nitrogen loss can be controlled by adopting management strategies that reduce leaching into tile systems,” he says.  “On average, for every inch of tile flow, five pounds (per acre) of nitrogen is lost.  Nitrogen losses can be reduced by decreasing the amount of tile flow or the concentration of nitrogen.”

Although there are still unanswered questions surrounding nutrient loss from tile drained land in Wisconsin, UW Discovery Farms does have resources that provide some first steps to reducing nutrient loss.

Pape will act not only as the farmer contact for the new tile project in northeast Wisconsin. He will also refine and develop additional educational resources for farmers and advisors throughout the project.

The tile drainage project is funded through the Conservation Innovation Grants program from the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service. UW Discovery Farms and the Discovery Farms Minnesota program are both implementing the project. For more detailed information about the grant visit the Ag Water Exchange blog.

For more information about tile drainage educational materials or the Tile Drainage Project contact Aaron Pape at or 920-366-2194.

Current tile drainage resources are available on the Discovery Farms website at