One of the most common questions farmers ask about tile drainage is, “Will it work in our area?”
As probably one of the most expensive investments a farmer will make, next to purchasing land, it’s understandable that farmers want to make sure tile drainage will work and give them some tangible benefits before they take the plunge.
A new partnership between two Manitoba companies that both have their roots in Pilot Mound — Farmers Edge and NextGen Drainage Solutions — is providing a way to show farmers not only that their tile drainage system works as it should but what it is doing for their soil, crops and bottom line.
“With this new data-driven water management system we can assure farmers that their investment is working as it should,” says Brett Sheffield, owner and CEO of NextGen. “There are so many different things that we can show farmers now because we can monitor almost daily what’s happening in their fields. We can show them if their soils are warming up earlier in the spring for planting, or if soils are dry during the planting period. We can show them where they have more even emergence with their tiled fields, which will allow them to make better decisions about things like fungicide applications and harvesting.”
Farmers Edge’s partnership with Planet Labs Geomatics, a global leader in geo-image and geo-information, has given them access to between 140 to 180 advanced Dove Constellation micro satellites (each about the size of a shoe box) that are taking images constantly and frequently around the globe. This provides almost daily, high frequency imagery of farmers’ fields.
“In the past we would get a usable satellite image on average ever 17 days depending on the cloud cover, but with this high frequency imagery we average a useable image every 2.7 days,” says Richard Marsh, head of global digital agriculture for Farmers Edge.
Brad Marginet has been using Farm Command for the past two years, and says the recent upgrade to the digital platform has been a huge improvement.
Digitizing the Farm
Farmers Edge layers information from these images with data from other digital tools and sensors, including weather stations and a telematics device called a CanPlug, installed in the farmer’s equipment, that records data with every pass on a field. All of that data feeds into the Farmers Edge digital Farm Command Platform where it is analyzed and converted into data that farmers can use to make better decisions, such as crop yield comparisons and the impacts of applications of fertilizers or pesticides.
Farmers Edge is also in the final test phase of a new crop health change notification system that will alert farmers to changes in the field. “With this high frequency imagery we can tell between images which areas of the field are performing better and which are performing worse since the last image was taken,” says March. “That will help growers focus their scouting activities, save them a lot of time make them more efficient.”
Tillage in a dry year
A water management tool is also being built into the Farmers Edge data capture system to measure soil moisture, root growth and salinity, something that tile drainage has been shown to help alleviate.
Pilot Mound seed grower Joe Wallace tiled a saline area in his field in 2014 and within two years the salt level had fallen by half and continues to decline. “The salinity was there because we had a high water table, so when we tiled we dropped the table, which took the salts out with it and we’ve had better crop growth and better yield in those areas ever since,” says Wallace.
The new water management and soil moisture monitoring tools should go way beyond identifying existing water issues at the surface, to showing what’s happening below the soil in the root zone and allow farmers to compare crop performance between tiled and non-tiled fields.
“In a tiled soil, roots can grow down deeper which makes them more drought tolerant and more resistant to future stress so they can fulfill their potential because a strong root zone sets the plant up to be the bumper crop that farmers want in the fall,” says Sheffield.
Most people understand the benefits of tile drainage in a wet year, but how does it work in a dry year? “Last year was a dry year and we had a 20 bushel/acre increase on soybeans and around a 10 to 12 bushel/acre increase on our canola,” says Sheffield, whose 4,000-acre family farm is also partly an experimental and demonstration site for NextGen’s tile drainage systems. “The biggest benefit was that the crops on our tiled ground were prepped to handle the drought stress by getting a good start in the spring. When you have a lower root zone because of the tile, the roots are able to search deeper for water and they grow stronger.”
A properly installed tile system will never take away too much water, he adds. “Soil is like a sponge so by putting tile underneath it, you’re allowing water to get down so the sponge isn’t full,” says Sheffield. “But tile doesn’t squeeze the sponge, so there’s still water in that soil that the plant can use. It’s only taking out what’s harmful to the crop and it’s providing the proper amount of soil moisture and oxygen that the plant needs.”
A Selling Feature
NextGen has test sites across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta where it has been collecting data. Data from the test sites is being analyzed and will be released via social media on an ongoing basis.
“We invite the public to follow us along on Twitter,” says Sheffield. “If anyone wants to email us and ask about a different site, there’s a good chance we’ve tiled close to it because we’ve done a lot of tile sites everywhere across the Prairies.”
Marginet, who farms 6,200 acres of grain and potatoes near Treherne, Man., does have tile drainage on some of his acres, and says that the additional management data that will be available through the Farmers Edge/Next Gen collaboration would be a definite selling feature if he decided to add more tile drainage in the future. “I think with the overall progress that they are making on the digital side, with the weather stations, and soil moisture probes eventually, there is way more information at your fingertips,” he says.