Do-it-yourself tile drainage

Combine easy-to-use GPS technology with high land prices, and more Manitoba farmers are installing their own tile draining

Tile drainage has become increasingly popular in Manitoba. With only a few installers to go around and costs anywhere from $800 to $1,000 per acre, some adventurous farmers are opting to give it a go themselves.

Northern Plains Drainage Systems Inc. of Carman has sold over 50 tile plows to farmers across Western Canada in the last two years and says interest is growing fast. “The demand for tile drainage has been there for a long time in potato and vegetable production,” says co-owner, Joel Classen. “The biggest increase that we’re seeing now is in grain and oilseed farms.”

For Matthew Dixon who farms near Swan River, Manitoba, it was the lack of installers in his area that made him decide to try installing tile drainage himself. “We’re far enough north that we’re out of the way of the general contractors and for us time is a major concern. In the fall we sometimes only have a week or two to get certain things done,” says Dixon. “That was the main reason for us getting our own equipment.”

Dixon had struggled through four consecutive years of excess moisture and finally decided enough was enough. “We farm a lot of heavy land and once the soil gets saturated there’s not much you can do because the soil profile is so full of water and the heavy clay has slow internal drainage, so it just drowns out the crop,” he says. “We had been getting three or four inch rains and it was frustrating to see all that time and effort wasted away. That’s why I decided to try tile drainage.”

Most farmers start off slow, adds Classen. “They’ll pick their worst areas and start with those,” he says. “They’re coming to our workshops, taking their time and learning as they go. With the technology out there today, the actual installations have become a lot easier. The plow control system is automated and will keep the tile on grade within the depth parameters you set for each install,” he says.

“It’s not something you just decide overnight that you’re going to go throw some pipe in the ground,” says Dixon, who attended workshops and did a lot of homework before taking the plunge. “It takes a lot of time and planning to organize everything and learn exactly how to do it and it’s all dependent on the project. Some projects are small enough that it’s pretty well common sense that you know what should be done. Generally, you farm the land, so you know where the water wants to go.”

Considerations for DIY-ers

Farm equipment performing tile draining.

Joel Classes says the plow control system is automated and will keep the tile on grade within the depth parameters you set for each install.
photo: Northern Plains Drainage Systems

There are trade-offs that are important for the self-installer to consider, says Dr. Gary Sands, a drainage expert at the University of Minnesota. “It’s not a simple thing to do drainage well, even with the fancy tools that are out there now, GPS guidance and software and so forth, one still has to understand what goes into a good drainage system,” he says. “Regardless of where a person is on that scale from a farmer self-installer to a contractor, a person needs to understand how these systems work, what goes into a good system, what things to avoid in the field and the do’s and don’ts of installation and troubleshooting. A lot of farmers who do their own installation started out by observing the pros doing it first.”

Dixon turned to some professional help for larger projects on his farm. “For the more complicated, larger projects you should get help and just not wing it and try and do it yourself,” he says. “Do the full survey and the pipe sizing. When we planned a couple of big projects here I got Joel Classen and his business partner, Simon to do the surveying and design a grid system. They have the experience to know what works and what doesn’t.”

It’s questionable whether a self-install will actually save the farmer much up-front money. Equipment costs, which include a tile plow, RTK-GPS control system, a backhoe and tile trailer are likely going to set him back $70,000 to $100,000 or more. The cost of materials can range from $400/acre to $600/acre depending on a number of different factors that will influence the design and installation of the system and labour is extra.

“I think there’s the temptation when a farmer looks at this to say, with a relatively small investment in a plow and some software, I could go out and do this very inexpensively,” says Sands. “I think that’s a mistake. First of all anyone’s time is worth money and if you’re out there doing drainage work there’s something else you’re not doing, and you can’t do it alone. You ideally need a crew of four to six people to do the work. Then you’ve got to invest the time in learning how to design and so forth, so I think there is really more cost there than a lot of producers give credit to.”

An advantage for the do-it-yourself farmer is that he may have some of the equipment and technology needed on the farm already. “One major cost is the horse power of the tractor, so if it’s a tractor drawn plough then they already own 80 per cent of the cost of the unit to get started,” says Classen, and some GPS guidance systems already in the tractor cab may be compatible with the plough’s RTK GPS control system, depending on the manufacturer.

The benefits for Dixon on the land he tiled were immediate and visible. He could easily tell where he had tiled and where not because his tiled crops were no longer drowned out and he got a 50 per cent yield advantage in those areas. He’s also seen less soil erosion during heavy rainfall and less runoff. “The water is soaking into the land and draining slowly and we get drier, warmer soil in the spring so we get better crop development early on,” he says. “There are less weeds because the crop’s more competitive, so there are many benefits.”

The only negative aspects are the labour needed for the installation and the fact that it can take a year or two to get the land back into shape afterwards, adds Dixon. “We do the installation in the fall but we don’t go back until spring to finish it off just because we want to do as little disturbance to the soil as possible,” he says. “That’s our preference; everybody has a different way of doing it. Some people, right after installation, they’ll go and level off the ridges but we know our dirt and that if you just leave it, maybe you’ll prevent some frost going down and the soil will heal naturally and settle naturally.”

There are a lot of things to consider before you start tile drainage but an important one to remember is the neighbours, says Dixon, who, being something of a tile drainage pioneer in his area, found himself a lead topic of conversation for a while. “You want to keep everybody in the loop with what you’re doing because there might be a time when you have to go onto the neighbour’s land a little bit to put an outlet in or you’ve got to go across the neighbour’s field,” he says. “Sometimes what you are doing is to the neighbour’s benefit because if the water’s running off your land onto their land and you eliminate that, it benefits them in the end too. I think as years go on, there won’t be any objections to tiling because I think everybody will start to see the benefits.”

The economic benefits of tile drainage are going to be as individual as the farms it’s installed on, and most farmers won’t make the investment if it doesn’t pay. Dixon knows that his investment is long-term, but is sure it’s going to provide ongoing benefits to his farm. “You’re not going to sink $1,000 per acre into marginal land that’s only going to produce marginal profits,” he says.

In his case he’s saving crops on productive land. “We wouldn’t be doing more (tile drainage) if we didn’t feel it was beneficial. You can try and control everything like your seed and your fertilizer and your chemicals but you can’t control the amount of moisture you get. This gives us an option to keep the crop alive when we get these heavy rains and there are ongoing benefits that we see more and more every year. Once you get a crop growing on that land every year you’re producing a better crop and your land is able to handle more water.”

About the author

Contributor

Angela Lovell is a freelance writer based in Manitou, Manitoba. Visit her website at http://alovell.ca or follow her on Twitter @angelalovell10.

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