AgronomyInvesting in Better Drainage

Investing in Better Drainage

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[deck]Manitoba potato producers contend spending cash on tile drainage is not money down the drain.[/deck]

During a wet year, having tile drainage in your field can make or break your crop.

So says potato producer John Goff, co-owner of Corduroy Plains Farm near Carman, Man. Under certain conditions, he says, tile drainage can mean the difference between a bumper crop and no crop at all.

Goff’s farmland is made up of Almasippi soil, with a clay layer about four feet from the surface. Although the sandy soil is perfect for growing potatoes, it doesn’t have good internal drainage, says Goff, or lend itself well to irrigation.

“This area has a reputation for inconsistency. We can grow monster crops and then the next year we can have a total miss.”

Over three years, Goff aggressively tiled about 70 per cent of his potato acres, during which time he witnessed first-hand the difference tile drainage can make.

“In a really wet year, it would be night and day: one field would be in a crop insurance situation and the other would be a bumper crop,” he says.

Of Goff’s 10,000 acres, 6,500 are in potato rotation. Installing tile drainage gives the field the internal drainage it doesn’t naturally have, the grower says, and it was a game changer with respect to the potato yields and product consistency he and his processors were looking for.

“Before, we were very reluctant irrigators. To have proper quality potatoes for french fries, you really need to keep about 75 to 80 per cent soil moisture when you’re setting tubers in late June and July. To keep around 80 per cent soil moisture with poor internal drainage and the rains we get in the Red River Valley, you’re really playing with fire — you get a three-inch rain and you’re done,” says Goff.

“Tile drainage allowed us to do that. We can keep those high soil moistures: you get a three-inch rain and in three or four days you’re irrigating again on our lighter land.”

Together with his brother Don, Stan Wiebe farms 8,900 acres, including 850 acres of potatoes, near MacGregor, Man. He started tiling the cropland he owns in 1998, systematically tiling roughly 400 acres each fall for 16 years. With only one half-section left to do this fall, he’s tiled about 6,700 acres, including all of his potato acres.

Like Goff, he’s also under contract for the french fry processing market — so quality and consistency is all. Before tiling, Wiebe’s land (also located on Almasippi soil) was susceptible to drown-out, and excess moisture was the greatest risk he had to manage to remain viable in potato production. However, in an area where excess moisture is often the main yield-limiting factor, it can also be extremely dry, Wiebe says, and irrigation is a necessity.

While in the process of tiling, Wiebe was in a position to compare yield between tiled and untiled fields.

“In the earlier years, when we were tiling, we still had a lot of untiled fields to compare to. I came to the conclusion that, for the most part, on average, we felt we were getting a 10 to 15 per cent increase in yield,” says Wiebe.

Canola is another crop in Wiebe’s rotation that is susceptible to excess moisture. He recalls one year in particular in which the difference between tiled and untiled canola production was pronounced.

“In 2005, we had a lot of canola that drowned out and yielded maybe eight to 10 bushels per acre, whereas tiled fields were yielding 50,” he says. “With potatoes, it can be a huge increase in yield and quality in a wet year of tiled versus untiled fields.”

Within Canada, Manitoba is a tile drainage hub, with approximately one-third of the 60 or so potato producers using tile drainage on some of their land — and a few, like Wiebe, with 100 per cent tiled acres, says Bob Hyra, McCain Foods’ director of North American Agriculture.

Geography plays a large role, he adds, with tile drainage used more frequently in areas east of the Manitoba Escarpment.

“It’s very much an East versus West scenario,” says Hyra. Due to the different soil types resulting from glaciation in Manitoba, “things are just better drained in the West than they are in the East,” he says. “When you get off the escarpment you’ve got some challenges with drainage — they’re imperfectly drained, and those types of soils are very much assisted by tile drainage, especially the ones that have the sandy soil texture up above and that clay layer down below, which doesn’t allow water to get away.

“The tile drainage facilitates that, and does some amazing things on some farms to change the game, not just for potatoes but other crops as well,” Hyra says.

Potato producers farming on soils that are generally well drained may benefit from tiling problem areas, he adds, such as low spots in the field.

Major Benefits

Goff and Wiebe maintain the benefits of tile drainage go far beyond the management of excess moisture and irrigation. For example, salinity issues are also greatly decreased as water flushes salts lower in the soil profile.

Tile drainage results in warmer, drier soils, which mean growers can also look forward to earlier, more uniform seeding, a decrease in seed piece decay, and even emergence and plant stand establishment, says Goff. Thus, crop quality is more consistent.

In addition, farm operations are more timely and rain delays are minimal. “A one-inch rain coming through at harvest won’t put you out of business for a week. You’re right back on the field once the tile gets flowing,” says Goff. Work stoppage because a producer can’t drive on a wet field is also eliminated.

There’s also less external surface run-off and less water erosion during a heavier rain event, says Wiebe. And ditches stay clean longer as less silt is entering them.

Tile drainage also takes pressure off the municipal drainage system and also acts as a natural water flow control mechanism, says Wiebe. “The nature of the tile is to spread out the exit of water over a period of days instead of a rush of water that might come with a big rain. The municipal drainage system actually works more efficiently if a large number of acres are tiled.”

Another important benefit is increased plant health due to better root development and nutrient utilization. The soil of a tiled field is able to breathe, says Wiebe, and plant roots need air as much as they need water.

Plant roots in a tiled field are able to reach up to four feet in the soil profile and fully utilize the nutrients available as opposed to the saturated soil of an untiled field. “The roots [in saturated soils] literally can’t go that far down because it’s an anaerobic situation, and if the ground is totally saturated and the root zone is shallow, they can’t utilize all the nutrients,” says Wiebe.

Growers can use best management practices with more confidence, he adds. “A lot of effort is put in by farmers to utilize best management practices with fertility and precision [agriculture], and if that is wiped out with a heavy rain event and the crop drowns out, it’s all wasted. With tile, we have much more confidence to try things and have the crop come to maturity,” says Wiebe.

In addition, during a rain event, because tile encourages water to go through the soil instead of off the top, there will be less fertilizer run-off, says Kelsey Loewen, project manager at K&S Tiling, based in Altona, Man. “The fertilizer is going to stay in the soil and reduce the amount that ends up in the ditch.”

She says producers with tiled fields will also be better off in times of drought because the tile drainage system encourages the roots of plants to sink deeper, “so in times of drought you’re going to have stronger plants.”

Ed Froese, owner of Innovative Agri Tiling based in Reinfeld, Man., says tile drainage improves the physical properties of the soil. “The removal of excess water results in better aeration and corresponding microbial activity, improved soil porosity and, overall, better soil structure.”

The peace of mind tile drainage provides the growers who use it is another benefit, says Wiebe. While growers can’t control the weather, heavy rain events take a much lighter toll on their psyches. “There’s less stress and we sleep better. Farming is a stressful business and very connected to the weather. Unfortunately, tile has no impact on -3 to -4 C frost, but three- to four-inch rain is also very stressful, and we are much less affected by it,” he says.

Return on Investment

Whether you chip away at tiling your land for a number of years, or go at it more aggressively, both Goff and Wiebe recommend relying on the expertise of an experienced tile drainage contractor.

“We made a conscious decision early on we’d work with people who were in the business of tiling. The main reason is you can only tile a field once,” says Wiebe. “Once that tile is in the ground, you can’t pull it out and redo it. It has to be done perfectly the first time. We felt with the expertise that comes with an experienced tile drainage installer, it was worth hiring someone to do it.”

Although the cost associated with tile drainage installation can be high — up to $1,000 per acre, says Wiebe — the return on investment is also high.

And if it’s a wet year, the ROI can be particularly good.

“We feel the tile paid for itself in one year because in those really wet years we would have had nothing,” says Goff.

Both Froese and Loewen have also witnessed a fast turnaround on their clients’ investments. “We’ve seen some people get their money back in a year. Typically, it’s around three years. However, for farmers seeing their investment back in seven or 10 years, it is still worth it,” says Loewen.

To producers, even conservative estimates look good.

“It depends on the soil you’re farming and the crops you’re growing, but for our mix of crops — potatoes, corn, wheat, canola and soybeans — and the type of soil we have … eight to 10 years is a very reasonable expectation, and some other fields were paid for sooner,” says Wiebe.

If you’re in potatoes for the long game, the benefits definitely outweigh the cost, says Goff. “The approach we’ve taken is we buy a piece of land and make it right for potato production. The payback is definitely there if you have wet years or you have salinity problems. It’s the right thing to do if you’re growing potatoes on Almasippi sand,” he says.

Have Your Ducks in a Row

However, once the finances are in place, it may take some time until ground is broken.

Proper surface drainage must be in place before tile drainage can be installed, says Goff, which can be a fairly big job in and of itself.

Loewen says it’s important the two drainage systems — surface and subsurface — work together. However, getting surface drainage up to scratch can also be taken on by the tile drainage contractor, she says.

The next step in the project is to get all parties involved on board, such as adjacent land owners, and obtain associated permits and licenses from the province’s water stewardship agency and the rural municipality, says Goff. “That’s not a two-week process. It can take up to a year in advance if it’s something more complicated,” he says.

However, contractors can take care of all necessary permits as well as act as a neutral party when communicating tile drainage plans to adjacent neighbours and the community, says Loewen.

This part of the process is vital, says Wiebe. “In a sense, it’s a community project or issue, even though you’re the one doing it. A person has to be open about it with the neighbourhood and should go through the whole process in the proper way, with licensing and professional help in surveying and analyzing the field, and in coming up with a plan. Then working with any potentially affected neighbours,” he says.

Obtaining permissions can be one of the biggest obstacles growers face when installing tile drainage. Often, says Froese, this is a result of a lack of understanding about tile drainage systems. Froese, farmers, and other stakeholders, are working to increase tile drainage education of government officials and the public through the Manitoba Agricultural Water Management Association, in the hopes of overcoming this challenge.

After permissions have been granted, a brainstorming session with your contractor about drainage options and costs is a productive use of time, says Goff. “There’s a million different ways to tile a piece of ground. There’s all kinds of options, directions, drainage headers, will it be pump out or gravity flow … your drainage contractor is a good resource,” he says. “Brainstorming a good plan is key.”

From the contractor’s point of view, it’s important every aspect of the field is taken into consideration, says Froese. He says a thorough audit of the land, including a survey and custom-made tile drainage design for each field is necessary. “Our GPS technology allows us to map tile drainage installations to a high level of accuracy and precision,” he says.

Once the tile is installed there’s almost no maintenance required by producers. The only upkeep needed is to the outlets. “Whether a lift station with a pump or gravity fed outlet, the ditch needs to be periodically maintained,” says Froese.

With the exception of keeping outlets and ditches clean, both Goff and Wiebe maintain the system is virtually maintenance-free.

Reclaiming Land

With so many benefits, it’s no wonder the use of tile drainage systems is on the rise. Growers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Atlantic Canada are also tiling their fields. Another aspect of its growing popularity relates directly to rising farmland prices. Rather than buying more acres to increase production, growers are investing in sustainable water management in the land they already own — land considered undesirable for productivity or deemed too wet— and tiling it to increase its profitability.

“By reclaiming your land, you’re going to have more acres to farm and better quality soil,” says Loewen. “You’re going to see higher yields and it increases your land value quite a bit. When you resell, the crops are going to be better, the soil is going to be better, and the land value is going to go up as well.”

When increasing his farmland, Wiebe reclaimed, rather than expanded, acres. “Possibly a better way to look at growing your farm is to maximize yields that you can get off the acres you already own. If you can add to the yield, typically those added bushels are profit bushels, so we felt it was a much better investment to maximize the potential of the fields on the land we already owned versus simply expanding acres,” he says.

For potato growers across Canada, increasing crop yields and decreasing variability adds stability, not only to production, but also to processor contracts. For some, tile drainage places this stability within reach.

That being said, for Wiebe and Goff, tile drainage means there’s a better chance they’ll be rewarded for their efforts.

“All in all, it’s just a much more efficient farming operation with a better possibility of getting the maximum yield for the effort we put in,” says Wiebe.