Tile drainage

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In agriculture, tile drainage is a type of drainage system that removes excess water from soil below its surface. Whereas irrigation is the practice of providing additional water to soil when it is naturally too dry, drainage reduces the moisture in soil and thereby increases the amount of air in its pores so as to augment conditions for optimal growth of crops. While surface water can be drained by pumping, open ditches, or both, tile drainage is often the most prudent practice for draining subsurface water.

The phrase "tile drainage" derives from its original composition from tiles of fired clay, i. e., ceramic, which were similar to terracotta pipes yet not always shaped as are pipes. In the 19th century a "C" shaped channel tile commonly was placed like an arch atop a flat tile, denominated the "mug" and "sole", respectively. Today, tile drainage is any variation of this original system that functions in the same mode. Commonly HDPE and PVC tubing denominated "tile line" is used, although precast concrete and ceramic tiles are still used.

Excess subsurface water is counterproductive to agriculture because it fills the pores of the soil and evacuates the air they contain. Roots of plants require a quantum of air to live and grow, and therefore excess subsurface water inhibits their growth and, if it deprives them of air for a sufficient duration, causes their rot and death. Such detriments to the roots of crops inhibit or kill growth of the crops above ground. Additionally, even if detriment to roots of crops is excluded, another crucial reason for drainage is that an excess of water can limit access to the land, especially by heavy machinery: vehicles and trailers sink in and rip up wet soil and may become stuck in it. Access to a field is crucial because most modern agriculture depends on use of heavy machinery to cultivate the seedbed; plant the crop; cultivate the soil after planting; apply fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, et cetera; and harvest.

Increased crop yields[edit]

Most crops require specific soil moisture conditions, and do not grow well in wet, mucky soil. Even in soil that is not mucky the roots of most plants do not grow much deeper than the water table. Early in the growing season when water is in ample supply, plants are small and do not require as much water. During this time, the plants do not need to develop their roots to reach the water. As the plants grow and use more water water becomes more scarce. During this time, the water table begins to fall. Plants then need to develop roots to reach the water. During periods of dryness the water table can fall faster than the rate at which plants grow roots to reach it, which condition can gravely stress the plants.

By installing tile drainage, the water table is effectively lowered and plants can properly develop their roots. The lack of water saturation of soil permits oxygen to remain in the pores of the soil for use by roots. Drain tile prevents the roots from being under the water table during wet periods, which can stress the plants. By removing excess water crops use the water that their roots have access to more effectively. An increase in crop yield can be summarized as forcing plants to develop more roots so that they can absorb more nutrients and water.

The same principle operates in the pots of house plants: their drainage holes in the bottoms evacuate excess water from the medium so that air can fill the pores of the medium and be available to the roots which, if deprived of air by the saturation of the medium with water for a sufficient duration, will rot and die. Installing tile drainage in a field in a grid pattern achieves the same effect for a field of several hundred acres.

Plumbing of drain tile[edit]

Polyethelene corrugated drainage pipe, Ida Township, Michigan

In a tile drainage system, a sort of "plumbing" is installed below the surface of agricultural fields, effectively consisting of a network of below-ground pipes that allow subsurface water to move out from between soil particles and into the tile line. Water flowing through tile lines is often ultimately deposited into surface water points—lakes, streams, and rivers—located at a lower elevation than the source. Water enters the tile line either via the gaps between tile sections, in the case of older tile designs, or through small perforations in modern plastic tile.[1] The installation of the tiles or tile line can involve a trencher (Ditch Witch), a mole plough, a backhoe, or other heavy equipment.

Soil type greatly affects the efficacy of tile systems, and dictates the extent to which the area must be tiled to ensure sufficient drainage. Sandier soils will need little, if any, additional drainage, whereas soils with high clay contents will hold their water tighter, requiring tile lines to be placed closer together.


Tree roots of hedgerow and windbreak trees are naturally attracted to the favorable watering conditions that adjacent fields' tiles or tile lines provide. Hydrotropism plays a role as root hairs at the dynamically probing tips of tree roots respond differentially to moister crevices versus drier ones, exchanging hormonal messages with the rest of the tree that encourage them to concentrate on advancing into such favorable niches. In the perforations of tile drainage lines, just as in cracked or rusting water lines and sewer lines under town streets, these roots find the ideal combination of an entrance to enter and a plentiful water supply behind it. The result is that in any of these pipe systems, blockages sometimes occur and it is necessary to clear them through snaking, rotary-cutter snaking, select digging and pulling, and similar methods. In some regions farmers must do continual maintenance of tile drainage lines to keep them open and operating correctly, with at least some clearing every year in one or another part of the system.[2]:304–305

History of tile drainage[edit]

Mug and sole tiles
Old drain tile excavated from a construction site on a farm in Monmouth County, NJ
Drain tile in ground from same site

The ancient Roman authors Cato the Elder and Pliny the Elder described tile drainage systems in 200 BC and the first century AD, respectively. According to the Johnston Farm,[3] tile drainage was first introduced to the United States in 1838, when John Johnston used the practice in his native Scotland on his new farm in Seneca County, New York. Johnston laid 72 miles (116 km) of clay tile on 320 acres (1.3 km2). The effort increased his yield of wheat from 12 bushels per acre to 60. Johnston, the "father of tile drainage in America",[4] continued to advocate for tile drainage throughout his life, attributing his agricultural success to the formula "D, C, and D", i. e., dung, credit, and drainage.[5]

The expansion of drainage systems was an important technical aspect of Westward Expansion in the United States in the 19th century. Although land in the United States was divided according to the Public Land Survey System that the Land Ordinance of 1785 instituted, development, especially of agricultural land, was often limited by the rate at which it was made capable for cultivation. For example, although Iowa was admitted as a state of the United States in 1846, maps that depicted ownership of land indicated below-average densities of population in the northwestern region of Iowa as late as the 1870s, this being a corner of the State that is still famous for its high water table and numerous lakes and wetlands.

Western states had similar limitations to agricultural intensification. Many states offered governmental incentives to improve land for agriculture. For example, legislation in Indiana prompted a Federal statute in 1850 that provided for the sale of swamps at discount to farmers contingent on their drainage of the land and improvement of it for agricultural productivity. To facilitate such improvement, most states instituted governmental agencies to regulate the installation of tile drainage. Even presently, local elections in more rural states often include election of members of drainage supervisory boards; e. g., in Michigan the County Drain Commissioner remains popularly elected.

In the decades after the American Civil War drainage systems were rapidly expanded. For example, historical literature from Ohio[6] records that in 1882 the number of acres drained was approximately equal to the area of land that was drained in all previous years. In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps augmented the tile drainage systems throughout the Midwest, much of which is still used.

Advances in drainage technology[edit]

Until after World War II, the technology of tile installation remained similar to the methods first used in 1838. Although cement sections later replaced the original clay tiles, and machines were used to dig the trenches for the tile lines, the process remained quite labor-intensive and limited to specialized contractors.

The introduction of plastic tile served to reduce both the cost of tile installation, as well as the amount of labor involved. Rather than set individual sections of cement tile end-to-end in the trench, tile installers had only to unroll a continuous section of lightweight, flexible tile line. Towards the end of the twentieth century, when large, four-wheel-drive tractors became more common on American farms, do-it-yourself tile implements appeared on the market. By making tile installation cheaper and allowing it to be done on the landowner's schedule, farmers are capable of draining localized wet spots that may not create enough of a problem to merit more costly operations. In this way, farmers may enjoy increases in crop yield while saving on the capital costs of tile installation. Perhaps the most useful implement in drainage history was James B. Hill's Buckeye Traction Ditcher, which laid drainage tiles at a record pace. Hill's ditching machine drained the Great Black Swamp in Ohio, vast stretches of Louisiana, and Florida's swampland.

Social and ecological effects of tile drainage[edit]

Ecologically, the expansion of drainage systems has had tremendous negative effects. Hundreds of thousands of wetland species experienced significant population declines as their habitat was increasingly fragmented and destroyed. Although market hunting within the Central Flyway was a contributing factor in the decline of many waterfowl species' numbers in the early decades of the twentieth century, loss of breeding habitat to agricultural expansion is certainly the most significant. Early maps of midwestern states depict many lakes and marshes that are either nonexistent or significantly reduced in area today. Channelization, a related process of concentrating and facilitating the flow of water from agricultural areas, also contributed to this degradation.[citation needed]

Tile drainage and the corresponding changes to the landscape - draining wetlands, wet soils, and channelizing streams – have contributed to more erosive rivers.[7] This response of rivers due to drainage is the result of shortening the residence time of water on the landscape. For example, precipitation used to be held in wetlands and in/on the surface of soils, continuously evaporating or being used via transpiration of plants. Water would slowly drain through the landscape and eventually drain to rivers. The process of tile drainage, used to dry soils quickly and efficiently, results in an efficient transmission of water to the river – so efficient, in fact, that higher volumes of water are delivered to rivers.[citation needed] The effect of higher volumes of water is more energy in water - the dynamic equilibrium state that rivers existed in for centuries (slowly changing shape and continuously transporting limited sediment) was, and currently is, out of balance. The result of this loss of equilibrium is extreme amounts of bank erosion which results in over-burdensome sediment loads and critical impacts to natural environments and riverine habitats.[citation needed]

Drainage tile sometimes decreases soil erosion and runoff of some nutrients, including phosphorus.[8] Phosphorus is an important nutrient to control because it is the limiting nutrient in most aquatic ecosystems. Thus phosphorus is the main culprit in eutrophication of surface water; however, the other limiting nutrient, nitrogen, causes substantial damage to waters. For example, nitrogen has been implicated in the gulf hypoxia. Drainage tile sometimes increases water quality because the water flows into the ground then the tile, instead of running off the field into a ditch, carrying soil and nutrients with it. The soil has a chance to filter the water before it enters the streams and rivers. However, by bypassing surface improvements like conservation tillage or riparian buffers, tile drainage can also create problems with water quality [9] and outflow from tile drainage tends to be extremely high in nitrogen. Furthermore, some tile drainage sometime contains very high levels of other chemicals. Since surface forms of conservation agriculture are less effective in tile-drained systems, other practices such as controlled drainage or constructed wetlands may be more effective.[9] In very flat areas, where the natural topography does not provide the gradient necessary for water flow, "agricultural wells" can be dug to provide tile lines sufficient outlet. In these cases, it is the groundwater that stands to be polluted by unfiltered tile output.

Intensive livestock operations (ILO)/concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have led to challenges of livestock effluent disposal. Livestock effluent contains valuable nutrients, but the misapplication of these materials can lead to serious ecological problems, such as nutrient loading. Injecting effluent directly into the ground is one method employed by manure applicators to improve nutrient uptake. Drainage tiles may increase injected manure seepage into surface waterways from manure injection because liquid manure seeps through soils and then drains out of the field and into waterways via drainage tiles.[citation needed]

Today, a number of state and federal initiatives serve to reverse habitat loss. Many programs encourage and even reimburse farmers for interrupting the drainage of localized wetholes on their property, often by breaking tile intakes or removing the tile completely. Landowners are often partially or fully compensated for forfeiting the ability to grow crops on this land. Such programs and the cooperation of landowners across the country have had significant positive effects on the populations of a wide variety of waterfowl.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ US Environmental Protection Agency Agriculture 101 - Drainage
  2. ^ Rhodes, Richard (1989). Farm: A Year in the Life of an American Farmer. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-63647-2.
  3. ^ Johnson Farm
  4. ^ Jones, E. R. Notes on Drainage: Class Room, Field and Laboratory Exercises for Students of Land Drainage. Madison, Wisconsin: Democrat, 1908. Page 95.
  5. ^ Hey, Donald L. and Nancy S. Philippi. A Case for Wetland Restoration. New York, New York: Wiley, 1999. Page 31.
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ "Schottler et al. Hydrological Processes: Twentieth century agricultural drainage creates more erosive rivers" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-07-14. Retrieved 2014-01-09.
  8. ^ "Agricultural Drainage Publication Series: Issues and Answers". Archived from the original on 2013-01-05. Retrieved 2014-01-09.
  9. ^ a b Lemke et al. Evaluating Agricultural Best Management Practices in Tile-Drained Subwatersheds of the Mackinaw River, Illinois