Signs point to ‘yes,’ but homework should be done in advance

By Brent Adams

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Managing moisture in the field is part science, part art and part raw determination. Farmers looking to maximize crop yields, improve soil nutrients and halt devastating erosion likely have implemented, or at least considered, installing a tile drainage system.

Just as the characteristics of farmland vary from operation to operation, so do drainage needs. Some farmers with flat land constantly fight pooling water. Others have undulating areas in which erosion carries away healthy black soil with vital nitrates, phosphorus and other key nutrients.

Constant decimation of valuable farm ground likely will lead to diminished yields, lower profits and much frustration.

Consider this: According to the U.S. Geological Survey, every inch of rain amounts to 27,154 gallons of water per acre. That water weighs roughly 113 tons. An inch of snow falling evenly on one acre of ground is equivalent to about 2,715 gallons of water. That could put a significant amount of stress on fields receiving heavy amounts of precipitation, such as many in the Midwest and Southeast recently have experienced.

The addition of a tile drainage system allows that water to draw down evenly, without taking valuable soil and sediment with it, and preserving oxygen in the soil that will help crops live longer under water. 

Is the return worth the investment?

Skeptics argue that tile drainage is too expensive to be worth the massive up-front investment, with the typical pattern tile project costing between $300 and $1,500 per acre, though larger jobs could cost more. That price includes the cost of tile and the labor and specialized equipment required to install the perforated drainage pipe. There is a variety of equipment, including tile plows and trenchers, on the market. A quick check of Fastline.com, showed that used tile plows ranged between about $14,000 and $45,000, and trenchers ranged between $8,500 for an older model Case 460 and $162,000 for a 2015 Toro RT1200. Used tile trailers listed between $6,300 and $8,000.

When it comes to return on investment, Zach Johnson, a fifth-generation family farmer from West-Central Minnesota, and operator of the Minnesota Millennial Farmer channel on You Tube, is quick to rebut the skeptics.

He believes that with proper drainage, farmers can plant earlier and can experience a healthier, higher-yielding crop as nutrients are preserved and compaction, water-related stress and certain moisture-related diseases, such as root rot, are reduced.

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Do your homework
Chad Poole, a Professional Engineer and Research Scholar in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, said through modeling exercises performed over the years, he has seen predicted yield benefits of 5 percent to 20 percent annual increases after installing a tile drainage system. Increases, he said are dependent on what type of drainage system, if any, was already in use prior to the installation of drainage tile.
However, he cautions farmers to do their homework before plowing headlong into a pricey installation that might not achieve the desired results.

Whether farmers elect to install a drainage system themselves, or they hire a company to execute the project, good soil data should be collected. While Natural Resources Conservation Service data might be helpful, it should not be a substitute for testing soil in person and performing a layering analysis in the field. This will help determine where tile should be placed for maximum effectiveness.
Poole said he has seen farmers who install tile without performing proper analysis, install tile too deep in the ground for their outlet or in a restricting layer.

Another major problem occurs when surface drainage and runoff is not considered in the design. After a large investment, they come away disappointed because they continue to be plagued by drainage problems.
“If you’re spending between $300 and $1,500 an acre to install a system, then spending between $10 and $50 an acre to do a proper analysis, to me, seems like money well spent,” Poole said.
He added that rather than simply thinking about a system to divert surplus rainfall, farmers also should consider spending the extra money upfront to install a drainage water management system that can combine the benefits of controlled drainage and subirrigation into the system. These systems can retain the excess rainfall and distribute it to the root zone during drought conditions.
“A (drainage plan) should not be a one-shot, one-year thing,” Poole cautioned. “You need to look long-term. No matter what circumstances you face in the moment, those circumstances will change. For example, where we are, 2018 has been one of the wettest growing seasons since probably about 2003. And with depressed commodity prices, and the likelihood of no financing available at the end of the year, a lot of farmers will just move on without addressing their problems and fixing them. Then, if they have an average or good season, they’ll just overlook the problem and then get frustrated when it comes back around again. You really should have a good, three- to five-year plan.”

Leave it to the experts?
Poole said many farmers are inclined to purchase equipment and install drainage tile themselves as a means of saving money. This especially was the case in North Carolina about five or 10 years ago, when higher commodity prices and wetland mitigation in the eastern part of the state prompted land prices to more than double. When the prices spiked, many farmers opted to improve their existing land rather than purchase additional acreage.
“At that point, there was a big push (to add tile drainage systems), and in some instances, it happened quickly,” Poole said.
But without proper elevation surveys or consultation with experts, and in some instances acting on misinformation, some farmers made missteps, such as installing tile too deep for the outlet, not considering the soil layering, not considering the drainage capacity of the pipe, or installing a system that would not function properly for drainage water management.

In some instances, it might be beneficial to call in a professional installer. Randy Nessman, Owner of Big Stone Ag in Clinton, Minnesota, has installed tile drainage systems since 1998. Over time, the process has become more sophisticated, with the use of GPS, improved soil testing methods and aerial imagery to better understand the unique drainage requirements for the land, and specialized software to custom design drainage systems.

Nessman operates with a crew of five employees and handles about 50 jobs a year, ranging from $5,000 to $400,000. He said some of the calls he receives come from farmers who previously had installed tile themselves, but found that their system was not performing as they had expected.

Many of those farmers bought tile plows, trenchers and other tiling equipment, but weren’t armed with the intricate knowledge of tile drainage systems that ultimately could make or break a project.

“A lot of guys kind of shoot from the hip,” Nessman said, adding that common mistakes he has seen farmers make include not installing tile at the proper depth, installing too small of a main to handle large rain events or not having enough grade for gravity flow.

Nessman said even he and his seasoned crew face challenges out in the field.

“We get thrown a lot of curveballs,” Nessman said. “We see different stuff all the time.”

Big Stone Ag often shares the load of a job with farmers, Nessman said. His company will install main lines and the farmers will opt to install laterals as a means of saving on labor costs.

“A lot of farmers have learned their limitations,” Nessman said. “And a lot of times, we can just lay pipe so much faster.”

Regardless of whether a farmer installs the drainage system or hires a contractor, Johnson believes that, in most instances, the investment will pay off in the long run.

“On most of our ground, I would guess that a well-drained acre is worth an average of $500 per acre more,” Johnson said. “In certain situations, it can make some soils go from almost worthless to incredibly productive.”

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Paying for a project

In some instances, farmers who lease land will share the cost of drain tile installation with the landowner. Landowners who have to bear the entire cost of the project might be able to receive financial assistance from the National Resources Conservation Service, which has Agricultural Management Assistance, Conservation Stewardship and Environmental Quality Incentives programs. They are intended to help landowners construct or improve water management or irrigation structures and improve soil quality. Some states also have supplemental programs to aid in the process. For additional information, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov, and search “NRCS Funding Opportunities.”

Want to learn more about agricultural tile drainage?

John Panuska, a Natural Resources Extension Specialist with The University of Wisconsin-Madison, has compiled a thorough resource that answers many of the questions farmers have about the subject. It can found at: https://fyi.uwex.edu/drainage/files/2015/09/Basic_Eng_-Princ-2_2017.pdf


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