Brick and Clay Record, 21(3): 87-88 (September 1, 1904)

Underdrainage the Base of Best Soil Improvement.*

*Read before the 18th annual convention of the National Brick Manufacturers Association at Cincinnati, February. 1904.

It is an important truth that the Creator has stored our soils and sub-soils with marvelous riches, for the use of mankind, in the fertility that is available and unavailable, except as we make it of use by our own special efforts. It is estimated that there is in most of the clay soils a sufficient amount of potash and phosphoric acid to grow farm crops for a century or more, if we return, from time to time, the waste of farm products, excepting that nitrogen, another leading element, is not so abundant in the soils, but which may be had by growing such crops in rotation as to have the power of taking nitrogen from the air.

Much of this fertility is insoluble or unfit for plant food in its present form, and can only be made fit for the use of vegetation by adopting such methods of soil improvement as will secure circulation of air through the soil and sub-soil.

The extent or magnitude of this store of fertility is beyond our power to compute; when we take into account the fact that, at a depth of many feet in the drift soils, the earth, composed in most part of clay, holds in great abundance the two leading elements of fertility, viz., potash and phosphoric acid, together with other elements important in plant growth, but unavailable until they are rendered soluble by the action of the air, heat and moisture.

A portion of hard pan clay taken from a depth of five or six feet and exposed to the air and heat of the sun, will fall apart and changes to fertile soil. The same action will occur if the necessary conditions are provided to secure a circulation of air through the clays lying beneath our soils.

To do this, the excess of water must be removed by underdrainage (tile drainage). Without underdrainage this great storehouse of fertility is locked effectually against plant life, however much we may till and reap farm crops from the surface soil. There is not a more important truth in the agriculture of today, strenuous as it is, than that we must underdrain deep and well, if we draw on the immense store of fertility that is held firmly in the grasp of the underlying strata of clays, upon which our surface soils rest.

Underdrainage not only serves to make the underlying fertility available, but it will in a large measure prevent the washing of the surface soil. It is claimed that the waste of fertility from the surface washing of undulating land, in cultivation, is quite as much as that used by the crops grown.

Observation teaches us that every heavy rainfall that rushes off over the surface carries away the fine particles of soil and decayed vegetable matter into the rivulets and streams, never to return, which is evidenced in the muddy water which is often dark dyed with the best of manures and fertility applied to the surface soil.

Besides, we know that at other times the water of attraction which rises from the depth of earth beneath brings in solution soluble fertility, the water passing off into the air in the form of vapor, leaves the fertility at the surface, which is likewise washed away. In addition, the water in its descent through the air washes out the nitric acid and carbonic acid, important factors in plant growth, which is also washed away, making a four-fold loss, viz., the fine particles of earth and vegetable matter, the fertility brought up by the water of attraction and that brought down out of the air by rainfalls.

To prevent this immense waste of fertility, underdrainage is the only effectual and permanent method of preventing this ruinous loss. Underdrainage makes the soil open, porous and friable, readily permitting the water to percolate through the surface soil and sub-soil to the drains below, thus preventing the surface washing, and consequent waste of fertility.

The crops grown and harvested and sold off of land not underdrained, the shallow breakings, and the surface washing of the soil has brought about, as a farmer expressed it, "a hide-bound" condition of the soil—the surface of clay soils run together, forming a crust, which breaks up cloddy, requiring much labor to make a satisfactory seed bed, and the same condition often occurs during the cultivation of crops, preventing the circulation of air through the surface soil, so important to plant growth.


We briefly mention as follows: It takes out the surplus water in the soil, which is a serious detriment to the growth and perfection of vegetation, thus always insuring a full crop, when frequently not one-half of a crop is matured on like soil not underdrained.

Underdrained soils are susceptible of earlier cultivation, thus practically lengthening the season for growth and maturity, which means greater yield and better quality of crops grown. The soil, being much more open and friable, is, therefore, more easily tilled. Underdrained soil is rendered open and porous to the depth of the drains, by the percolation of the water through the soil, and the extension of the roots of growing crops, which afterwards decay, leaving innumerable fine openings through which the air can circulate, and effect important chemical changes, rendering insoluble fertility soluble or available for plant food. The open, porous condition of drained soil admits the air and the warm rains penetrate the entire mass, increasing the temperature from 6 to 10 degrees, securing a better germination of the seed and a more vigorous growth of vegetation.

The porosity of the land thus secured facilitates the admission or the escape of air and heat, which is important in promoting the deposit of dew upon the particles of soil. A deposit of moisture like dew is constantly going on in deep, open, porous soils, when the air penetrating the soil is at a higher temperature than the soils, which is of the highest consequence in securing a vigorous growth and the better development of vegetable life. This well-known fact has been observed in the better growth of farm crops on drained land during a drouth. Deep, thorough underdrainage serves to conserve the water of rainfalls, the water passing down through the soil and subsoil is held upon the surface of the soil particles, to such an extent that the water of a heavy rainfall, of one inch or more, is held for the use of plant growth. After the rainfall ceases, the capillary action begins, the water ascending by attraction, carrying in solution the plant food, to be taken up by the feeding roots of growing crops. If the good husbandman makes the surface fine, an inch or so in depth, there will be practically little of the water escaping by evaporation at the surface, thus conserving the water almost wholly for the use of the growing crops. The statement that lands are underdrained to get the excess of water out, and to get water into the soil, though seemingly contradictory, yet it is true in fact.


All soils contain more or less of vegetable germs, or plants of a very low order, so small that they cannot be seen without the aid of a microscope. These invisible plants are known as bacteria, and by their action, or growth, they in some way cause the oxygen of the air to unite with the nitrogen in the soil and the ammonia, thus forming nitrates (or compounds of nitric acid with other substances) in the soil. This formation of nitrates in the soil is called nitrification, and its importance is due to the fact that nitrates contain nitrogen in a form which is readily available for the use of plants.

Prof. Shaw says: "In order that nitrification may take place, at least four things are necessary: First, the soil must be sufficiently porous to let air pass down freely among its particles; second, the soil should be moist, but not wet. Moisture is necessary, but an excess of water prevents nitrification; third, there must be a certain amount of warmth, we cannot say how much, but we know that nitrification takes place most rapidly at summer temperatures and apparently ceases near the freezing point; fourth, the soil must contain lime, potash, soda or some similar substance, to unite with the nitric acid, so as to form nitrates." And then adds the following conclusions: "These conditions, so far as the farmer can control them, are best secured by underdrainage and thorough tillage." Underdrainage being the base upon which to build for the best soil fertility.

The drained soil and subsoil being open and porous, and much warmer than the soil not drained, other things being equal, will best promote nitrification. The importance of this feature of soil improvement is not generally appreciated, for the reason that it is not fully known by many farmers, but is very forcibly demonstrated in the thorough underdrainage of lands to a depth of three or four feet, which afterwards quite doubled the crop yield.

With the foregoing advantages of underdrainage thus briefly mentioned, and many others that might be added, the farmer has a. means of increasing the capabilities of his soil by adding to its depth, and better mechanical conditions and its capacity for production by underdrainage wholly independent of increasing the number of acres.

That is, he may own a farm of 100 acres and thoroughly underdrain it to a depth of three or four feet, and draw upon the available fertility, to a depth of one, two or three feet, as his crops may have need, and thus increase his crop production equal to the production of 200 acres of similar soil, not underdrained, and cultivated to a depth of only six inches —a very common depth. With the latter he is at a greater expense to fence, pays twice the money in the purchase, and is at double the expense to plant and till, and pays twice the amount of taxes. As a plain business proposition, it is much better to own the 100 acres and thoroughly underdrain it, and thus increase its capacity for production, rather than to add to the acreage and not underdrain.

The advantages of underdrainage may be had at a cost of $20 per acre or less, and the expense returned in the increased yield of one or two crops and the saving of labor required to fit the soil for planting and timely cultivation. Besides, if the work of drainage is well done he has a lasting improvement, one which will give satisfactory returns for generations to come.

Established reliable business conditions are important in farming as in other vocations. The certainty in growing a maximum crop every year makes it possible for large returns. The average farmer cannot afford to occupy a farm for a country residence and a bare living. Improved lands have advanced in value to such an extent that makes it a financial consideration to buy more land, to broaden farming operations. It will be much better for the mass of farmers to improve their present holdings to the extent of doubling their productive capacity, by thoroughly underdraining them—the cost will be much less than to buy more land and continue to farm the whole without this important improvement of soil conditions. Besides, in this way, the farming business will be so intensified as to lead to an intelligent uplift all along the line of its operations.

There are many notable examples that point the way to certain success, along the line indicated. If the man who causes two blades of grass to grow where only one grew before, is a public benefactor—the man who underdrains his land and causes two bushels of grain to grow where only one bushel grew before is a greater benefactor, but many have surpassed this high degree of usefulness in the world's great work by growing maximum crops on underdrained land where none grew before. Yet there are millions of acres of the best agricultural lands that need to be reclaimed by underdrainage, and thus add to the productions and the wealth of the country. The future outlook for agriculture in this country was never so promising as it is today. Our government has consuls and agents in almost every trade center throughout the civilized world, negotiating trade arrangements for the products of this country. There are men standing today in our principal markets ready to buy for exportation if we have what they want. Our exports of the past year aggregate over $1,500,000,000, and we are short on many products. Out of the corn production alone we have now as many as 70 different commercial products finding a market at home and abroad.

The foreign demand wants our horses, our cattle, and, in short, all the products of our animal industries, our grain products, to say nothing of our manufactured products. May we ask where all these animal and grain products are to be grown to supply this world's increasing demand already at our door? There is but one answer to the question, and that is, that it must be produced largely in the great corn belt of our own country. We are today practically in the center of the "corn belt." In view of this coming prosperity, is it not imperative that we haste to put our soils in the best possible condition to grow maximum crops—that we may share alike the profits that will accrue from such an unprecedented trade.

The underdrainage of much of the cultivated land within the area of this great corn belt is the base to build upon for the best soil improvement, and the best crop growing, and the farmer or land-owner with a business suit on will not neglect to see to it that this basic improvement is made, and thus increase the productive capabilities of our wonderful soil possibilities. The world's needs are pressing and demand haste.