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MU Greenley Center shows drainage systems for improving crop yields, water quality


Visitors to the University of Missouri Greenley Research Center saw a big dig underway as they arrived for the research farm's annual field day, Aug. 13, in Knox County.

Heavy-equipment operators were burying plastic drainage tile in the bottomland field near the entrance. At the headquarters, visitors saw similar equipment at work on a flat claypan field beyond the registration tent.

In addition to tours on pest management, beef and crops, the field day offered special tours showing contractors installing MUDS systems. MUDS stands for MU Drainage and Subirrigation.

Kelly Nelson, MU agronomist at Greenley Center, said the two new systems on the research farm near Novelty, Mo., will compare MUDS systems in deep silt-loam soil in the creek bottom and under poorly drained claypan soil on the uplands.

Drain tiles carry away excess water in years of heavy rains, such as 2008 and 2009, allowing earlier planting and increased yields. During the dry seasons, pumps add water into the tiles to supply crop roots. The irrigation also increases yields.

The two new plots are small-scale versions of research underway since 2001 on the nearby MU Ross Jones Farm near Plevna, Mo.

Drainage increased corn yields an average of 15 percent during 2002-2008, Nelson said. Adding subirrigation boosted yields 45 percent on average.

"Soybeans do better with the drainage," Nelson told farmers. "They do not like wet feet."

With drainage, average soybean yields increased 23 percent. Adding subirrigation increased soybean yields 27 percent.

Although the 2009 crops are still unharvested, Nelson said, "You can really see the difference in crops on the drained and undrained fields this year."

In past studies, subirrigation used a quarter of the water needed for aboveground irrigation.

A bonus to the water-control systems is reduced sediment runoff and nitrogen loss, which lessens soil erosion and improves efficiency of fertilizer use.

"Reduced water flow through the winter months cut nitrogen loss by 75 percent," Nelson said.

The new plots at Greenley Center will study the water-quality concerns, Nelson said. "Our hypothesis is that we can both increase yields and reduce nitrogen loss."

Most upland croplands across much of northeast Missouri contain the claypan layer. The packed clay restricts drainage through the soil and root penetration of the subsoil.

The bottomland MUDS system will analyze results under a forage grazing system. The drain field is being installed under paddocks used by the spring-calving beef cow herd. "Those paddocks can get pretty muddy in wet years," Nelson said. The researchers hope the drainage makes for dryer calving paddocks in addition to reducing nutrient losses.

Nelson said another MUDS plot will be installed on a nearby field of gumbo clay, which also is difficult to farm when wet. "Improving the water flow should improve crop yields on gumbo."

Some county soil and water conservation districts provide federal cost-share money for installing drainage tile systems. Amounts are set on a county basis by local boards overseeing funding from the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

In the afternoon, the field day tours moved to the MU Ross Jones Farm on Highway 15, southeast of Greenley Center.

Funding for the facilities for the MUDS water-quality studies at MU Greenley Center was secured by Sen. Kit Bond, R-MO. At a lunch, a thank you for the senator was issued to be delivered to Washington by an agricultural aide to Bond, Megan Perry, who attended the field day.

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