How to Make Tile Plows Work Successfully

Staying on grade biggest challenge.

Published on: Sep 6, 2007

One south-central Indiana farmer is just waiting until harvest is over to try out the tile plow he purchased to get started on a serious tile-laying program on his farm. He has his fingers crossed that soils won't be so hard and dry that he has trouble operating the plot this fall. He already has a spool of tile on a rig ready to pull behind the tile plow, sitting in his barnlot.

Debate has raged for years over whether farmers can install tile themselves using tractor-mounted tile plows, and still get a good job, compared to tile installed with more conventional trenching machines.

Lots of tile has been installed over the years in Ohio. Ohio State University may have the most actual data on the benefits of tile ever recorded, at least in the U.S. One Ohio State researcher who specializes in drainage information and who is sought after to speak around the Midwest is Larry Brown. The drainage expert recently spoke at the Clay County soil conservation field day near Brazil. The field day was sponsored in part by the Clay County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Both Brown and Jane Frankenburger, Purdue University drainage specialist, make similar comments when asked about drainage plows farmers pull behind tractors. "The secret is keeping them on grade," Brown says. "W laser is a must to guide the plow and stay on grade."

Tile is often depreciated at 20 years. But Frankenburger notes that actual life can be much longer, up to 50 years or more. Some very old systems, known to have been installed 75 years ago or more by the style of tile, are still working when cut open in many cases. The secret is whether they have filled with sediment over the years or not. Once filled with sediment, the tile line is no longer useful, no matter what material it is made of or by what method it was installed. Many of the oldest systems, believe it or not, were installed by hand. But many of those were often single lines run to wet holes, not pattern systems on set lateral spacings across an entire field. People putting in modern, whole-field drainage systems using GPS to guide installation and record the actual tile location, often cut across these types of tile line while making their installations,. If the line is still running, it may be capped or included in the new system.

What happens if you get off grade while installing tile is that chances for sedimentation increase, Frankenburger notes. It may not happen immediately, but could happen faster than it should over time, compared to systems installed properly on grade. Sedimentation is the number one hazard of tile systems.

"It take practice to get it right with a tile plow ion a tractor unit," Brown says. "It can be done, but it often takes a while to get on to how to do it properly."