Trying tile drainage on your farm

There's information out there. Do your homework before starting tile drainage

I am not an engineer and will not give recipes for pipe size, spacing or equipment. Rather, I’ll look at the principles and steps a farmer should take before investing big bucks in tiles.

Tile drainage is not a new technology. Many of the better soils of the world are on flat, low lying, high organic matter land that is subject to excess water from time to time. The Mecca of soil science, Broadbalk Field (continuous wheat since 1840) at Rothamsted Research in the U.K., was tile drained early in the plot history. Clay tiles were dug in by hand — that is how “tiling spade” was named.

Much of the farmland in the Great Lakes basin of Ontario is not considered valuable crop land until it is tile drained. In the U.S. Midwest, tiles have been in place since the 1860s. As needed the original clay tiles are replaced and plastic pipe has been used since the 1950s.

My first experience with tile drains had nothing to do with farming. In 1961 I was a pipe layer for a contractor installing sewer systems in Cupar, Sask. Our tiles were running water by the time we got a few blocks. They move groundwater as well as sewage. In towns with saline soils the lagoons can be very salty.

Across the world, most tile drains are used for water table control, usually at depths of about four feet. Spacing depends on soil texture: sandy lands 75 feet or more, clay loam soils 50 feet or less.

In many cases in rolling land in Saskatchewan I think the targeted design would fit the bill. Often, it is not so much the acres involved as the inefficiency those few problem acres cause with big farming equipment.

A recent project at Melfort, Sask., was completed as a parallel system and is functioning well. In hindsight, it was my idea that the same amount of pipe installed on a targeted basis would have reclaimed more acres for the same money.

Watch the costs

Much of the cost is in the tile drain pipe itself. Now it is all imported from the U.S. we’ll face the impact of the U.S. dollar. There’s no need for me to tell farmers what that means in terms of price.

Back in the 1980s I recall touring a drain pipe manufacture plant in southern Alberta (Taber?) using recycled plastic. The plant is no longer there.

I think there could well be a business opportunity here.

If my facts are wrong, I am sure a reader will let us know.

Saline Soil Reclamation

Tile drainage is only one part of the equation for saline soil reclamation. The other part is leaching, which in many areas means irrigation. (See my column in the February 2, 2016 issue of Grainews for more detail on that topic.) Drainage and leaching is the only reclamation for salty ground. In the 1970s, soil salinity was raging, as it is now, farmers were making money and much money was wasted putting expensive tile in the ground that never ran any water and never reclaimed anything. Let us not repeat that mistake.

In the 1970s and ’80s there were only a few drain tile contractors, some using trenchers, but many using laser controlled drain plows with D8 Cat tractors. Today there are very simple (but expensive) drain plows that can have depth control using technology that many smart young farmers can easily handle. And, the huge four wheel drive tractors are already on many farms. I am convinced that many will pick the right drain plan and make it work on their farm.

First things first

Before tiling be sure to check out the wealth of information available with a mouse click. Both Manitoba and Minnesota Ag websites have a lot of info. Detailed land elevation contours are needed and many farms already have that from GPS equipment they are already using.

What is not as high tech, but just as important, is knowing where the water table is and how it fluctuates over time. Shallow observation wells (about 10 feet deep) can be simply and cheaply installed by anyone. I can do it, so anyone can. See my column in the October 20, 2015 issue of Grainews for instructions.

The real game stopper can be not so much getting rid of the water, but where that water is going and who or what is going to be negatively impacted. Permits are required in most places so do be careful and think of others before barging ahead.

About the author


J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.

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