Cover Crops Vs. Tile: Which Is The Best?

In the spring, cover crops might serve as a less-expensive alternative to tile systems for drying out fields. But tile has its own perks, and the two systems may be best working together.

With crop prices and farm incomes at record levels, many no-tillers have been pouring substantial sums of money into improving drainage.

The benefits of increased yields and timely field operations are well documented when poorly drained fields are tiled, and high commodity prices provide a quick return on investment. Some no-tillers see tiling as a wise way to reduce their taxable income.

But there’s a school of thought developing among some no-tillers that cover crops can, in some situations, do what is required to dry out their fields in the spring and avoid a $500- to $800-an-acre investment in tile lines.

So which approach is best? There’s no simple answer, but no-tillers and strip-tillers are encouraged to do the math on both systems and know to what degree your fields can be helped with either cover crops, tiles or both.

Getting Fields Ready

In recent years, Carroll, Ohio, no-tiller David Brandt has suggested that cover crops are his best option for draining fields, given his farm’s individual needs and circumstances.

Brandt, who no-tills about 2,000 acres split between corn, soybeans and winter wheat, says 90% of his farm ground is cash rent and not systemically tiled. Slopes in south-central Ohio average 6% to 10%, but can reach 20%.

Brandt estimates 70% of farmland in his area is owned by absentee landlords, a major disincentive for farmers to invest in tile because they might not have access to the field long enough to reap the benefits.

Between October 10 and November…

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John Dobberstein

John Dobberstein is senior editor of No-Till Farmer magazine and the e-newsletter Dryland No-TillerHe previously covered agriculture for the Tulsa World and worked for daily newspapers in Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Joseph, Mich. He graduated with a B.A. in journalism and political science from Central Michigan University.

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