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When is tile drainage a good fit?

If your farmland has a high water table, floods frequently and suffers from salinity issues, odds are it can benefit, if there’s somewhere the water can go

Drone image of a tile drainage project in northeast Saskatchewan. The tile drainage was installed over six quarter sections to address issues related to side hill sweep, high water tables and soil salinity.

After a two-day downpour drowned out 50 acres of canola last year, Dustin Williams decided it was finally time to do something about a field that had been plagued with paltry crops.

“It just rotted out,” says Williams, who also grows wheat, oats, soybeans and edible beans on his farm near Souris, Man. It was the fourth time in 10 years the problem field produced either a suboptimal crop or no crop at all.

“It was just due to the water ponding and soil staying saturated for too long,” Williams says. “We made the decision to start improving the land.”

The solution was tile drainage. Williams contracted NextGen Drainage, a tiling company in Pilot Mound, Man., to install subsurface tile on 150 acres in the fall of 2020, and after growing edible beans (for the first time) on the freshly tiled land, he was happy to see a “fantastic” crop come up.

Williams is planning to tile more acres in the coming years.

“My intention is to do about a quarter section a year and try to clean up my worst fields,” he says. If the investment in tile drainage continues to pay off, he’ll likely move to broader use on all of his farmland.

“I think there’s going to be a general improvement in yield overall,” says Williams. He anticipates yields could rise 10 to 20 per cent in tiled fields and substantially more for those in the most affected areas.

A crew at work in the Outlook, Sask., area, installing a dual-wall drainage main line through a hill at a 14-foot depth to ensure access to an adequate outlet. photo: Precision Drainage Solutions

High water tables, salinity and precipitation

Williams isn’t alone. Tiling fields is becoming more popular among Prairie farmers, particularly in Manitoba. So how do you know if the practice is a good fit for your farm?

Williams says for him the answer was pretty clear. It wasn’t just the promise of higher yields that spurred him on to do it — his land just seemed to be particularly well suited for tile drainage.

The landscape is highly topographical, he says, with a fair amount of elevation and slope in spots, which create problems with saturated soils and water ponding in low areas. Because the soil is sandy, water can also move through it relatively quick, which can cause groundwater deficits in drier conditions.

“I would say between 10 and 15 per cent of the land in total farm base is affected by water, so ponded water or not enough water,” says Williams.

He’s fortunate to have a great natural outlet for his tile drainage as well — the Souris River, which is right beside his farm, Williams notes. As a result, he says permitting for the project went smoothly, and there are no neighbours between the farm and the river who might fret over exactly where the water from his fields is going.

A crew installing a drainage main line through a hill cut and road allowance in northeast Saskatchewan. photo: Precision Drainage Solutions

As owner-operator of Precision Drainage Solutions in Saskatoon, Olaf Boettcher has been installing tile on Saskatchewan farms since 2017.

He says this year has been a really good year for business — even with widespread drought conditions across the Prairies. Most of Boettcher’s customers stuck with their tile installation projects this year because they see drainage as a long-term solution to water-related problems on their farms. Tile drainage is easier and, therefore, less expensive to install during dry periods because there’s no mucking around in mud and the soil is generally easier to work with.

Many of his customers are dealing with high water tables which contribute to waterlogged soils and can make flooding more likely — and can also lead to accumulated salts in the soil. Tile drainage addresses both problems by lowering the water table.

Boettcher says salinity is a problem all over Western Canada and is a big driver behind tile drainage. He adds tile drainage works best in areas with higher rainfall as there is more excess water, which flushes salts downward in the soil profile.

“High water tables drive the salts up. And then, even in the dry periods or later on in the growing season, that creates problems,” Boettcher says. “A lot of guys are looking at tile drainage for that reason.”

A crew from Precision Drainage Solutions installing tile in northeast Saskatchewan. photo: Precision Drainage Solutions

As Boettcher points out, water from a drainage tile system must have someplace to go, so access to a suitable outlet, such as a natural waterway, ditch or an on-farm retention pond, is a must. If your farm lacks an outlet, or if it’s near a protected wetland or some other area that makes drainage problematic, then it’s probably not a good candidate for tile drainage.

Permits can be a challenge

With tile drainage, important questions to consider include where is the water draining to and who will be affected? Also, what water bodies will be affected? That’s where permitting comes in. 

Brandon Leask is an agricultural water engineer with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, which provides technical assistance with respect to water management and helps educate farmers about related regulations (tile drainage projects fall under the provincial Water Act, which is regulated by Alberta Environment and Parks). 

Alberta has fairly stringent regulations around ag tile drainage, which is why Leask recommends producers seek the services of a tiling installer. 

“It’s not a minor process unless you’re really knowledgeable about it. Hire a contractor to assess the situation for you, to design it for you, to apply for the approvals and (do) everything else for you, because it’s not a simple process,” he says. “There’s a lot of pieces in the puzzle.” 

Olaf Boettcher of Precision Drainage Solutions says permitting is always an important consideration for Saskatchewan farmers, especially in certain areas of the province like the Quill Lakes region, where risk assessments can make it more difficult to get regulatory approval. 

Drone image of tile drainage installed over two quarter sections in northeast Saskatchewan. photo: Precision Drainage Solutions

“We don’t really work in some of those areas because it’s pretty hard to get permits there,” he says. “The biggest challenge, or barrier for us, is the permitting aspect and (it) always has been in this province at least.” 

Boettcher stresses it’s important for farmers considering tile drainage to do their homework around water stewardship regulations. It can be complex, which is why many farmers prefer to have a professional tile installer do it for them. 

Boettcher says at his company he has someone on staff whose sole purpose is looking after permits. “We handle the whole permitting aspect, start to finish.” 

About the author

Associate Editor

Mark Halsall

Mark Halsall is an associate editor at Grainews based in Winnipeg. Contact him at [email protected]

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