The Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership’s (ISAP) risk management webinar “Myth ­– Tile and Conservation Don’t Mix” presented reasons why farmers’ reluctance in transitioning to a conservation cropping system can be against their interests.

Dr. Ehsan Ghane, an assistant professor specializing in agricultural drainage with Michigan State University’s Extension, explained how tile systems can be designed to mitigate the increased risk of nutrient loss drainage presents while providing a foundation for soil health systems to thrive.

Tile drainage is a form of agricultural drainage system that removes excess subsurface water from fields to allow sufficient air space within the soil, proper cultivation and access by heavy machinery to tend and harvest crops.

Dr. Ehsan Ghane is an assistant professor specializing in agricultural drainage in Michigan State University’s Extension program. Photo courtesy of Ehsan Ghane

Ghane outlined three important factors in a successful tile drainage system:

  • Drainage Design – “There are a number of decision support tools that should be used in designing your drainage system,” said Ghane. “There is the drain sediment tool, the sizing main and the drain spacing tool.” The drain spacing tool estimates the optimum drain spacing that maximizes annual return on investment in the drainage system. The sizing main tool gives the size of the main needed for a certain location in a drainage system. The drain spacing tool estimates the site specific drain spacing that maximizes economic return on investment.

Ghane recommended anyone interested in the use of these and other design tools visit the MSU webpage dedicated to them at

  • Drainage Installation – “The ideal condition, the very best condition for installation, is when the ground is driest,” Ghane said. Avoiding wet conditions is important because it reduces the chance of soil compactions. It will also avoid root and sediment clogging problems.
  • Choice of Pipe Material – Regular perforated pipe is standard, according to Ghane. But if you are installing your drainage system in an area prone to sediment clogging, choosing a different type of pipe can prevent a lot of headaches later on. “Both sock-wrapped pipes, which are regular perforated pipes wrapped in a sock-like material, and sand slot piping both protect against sediment getting into the pipe and clogging it,” Ghane said.

In his experience, sock-wrapped pipes saw the fastest and highest rates of drainage. Additional benefits of sock-wrapped piping over sand slot piping include reducing the risk of crop damage from water logging after a heavy rain, reducing the risk of delayed planting due to wet soil and a modest increase in overall crop yield.

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by Enrico Villamaino