Tile drainage: The ultimate risk-management investment

Highlights

  • While tile drainage systems are expensive, it’s a proven way to boost production and revenue potential from your existing land base
  • In addition to increasing yields, tile systems also reduce soil losses
  • If your area doesn’t have much elevation change, it may be worth considering a new concept called controlled tiling

If someone told you there was a tried-and-true product available that would consistently increase your crop yields by 29 to 36 per cent, you would probably pay attention. These are the estimated yield benefits for systematic tile drainage in Ontario.

According to Sid Vander Veen, drainage co-ordinator with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, the tile business in Ontario is booming. “We’ve been doing an annual survey since 1976 on agricultural tile sales in the province, and we are close to record highs in recent years. Over 180 million feet of tile went out in 2014,” Vander Veen says. The primary driver? High crop prices and land values.

“Places like Manitoba that have no existing tile drainage in place are well positioned to try controlled drainage because there is no working around tile that is already there.”

It’s not cheap. It can cost $1,000 an acre or more depending on the property, but when land values are spiking, tile drainage is a proven way to boost production and revenue potential from your existing land base. “Yes it’s expensive, but if we do a comparison of tile drainage costs versus new land purchase price, tile has never been cheaper,” Vander Veen says.

Harold Rudy, executive officer of research and business development with the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, sums it up nicely. “For high-value crops and productive land, tile drainage should be considered an essential capital investment to reduce risk.”

More than yields

The benefits go beyond yields. “Soil losses can be reduced by a factor of 10 due to less surface runoff,” Rudy explains. “We know tile releases water more slowly over a longer period of time.”

There are tax management advantages, too. Tile drainage costs are fully deductible in the current tax year, or you can carry all or part of the expense forward for up to five years to maximize the benefit in a high-income year.

John Vangorp started Vangorp Drainage near Aylmer, Ont., in 1968, and has witnessed shifts in production practices over the years that make tile drainage even more valuable to Ontario growers. Reduced tillage, more crop residue left on the soil surface, a desire to plant earlier – all these factors make it very valuable to have fields that dry quickly and uniformly. “There are farmers in southern Ontario with fields tiled 20 and 30 years ago, on 30- and 35-foot spacing, who are now going back in to split those runs and have tile every 15 feet or so,” Vangorp says. “They see the problem areas that are outside the reach of the existing tile.”

Rudy adds that we are learning how important tile drainage can be for managing compaction. “Closer tile spacing helps minimize compaction, because the whole field will be more uniform. You won’t have wetter soils in between the runs that can be susceptible to compaction in spring and fall.”

Do-it-yourself tiling

The basics of tile drainage haven’t changed – water still runs downhill. But Vander Veen points out that GPS technology and software that takes elevation into account have made it easier to efficiently map out how tile runs should be oriented for maximum benefit. The same tools are also available for those who want to buy a pull-type tile plow and do their own tiling.

Jordan Wallace of GPS Ontario sells Liebrecht Tile Plows that farmers can pull with their own tractors. Horsepower requirements depend on soil type and how deep the tile needs to go. Horsepower of 200 is a minimum, but tractor weight is equally important. “The plows work best with tractors that are at least 28,000 to 38,000 pounds,” says Wallace. “Larger-acre farmers tend to have an articulating tractor that can handle a plow nicely. Many drainage contractors are so busy it can be hard to get them in when you want them. Having your own plow lets you get tile in right away and take advantage of those short windows when soils are dry and you do the least amount of damage and compaction. After winter wheat harvest is the best timing.”

Another advantage to owning a plow is that a farmer can put a short run in to solve a problem spot – a job that wouldn’t be worthwhile for a contractor.

Wallace emphasizes there is a learning curve involved, and some soils and terrain are easier to tile than others. “You also have to look into what the local code is for accessing or creating outlets. Common sense prevails, but every municipality has their own guidelines.”

There are long-established rules and guidelines to handle the concerns of neighbours. The drainage page at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs is an excellent resource.

Vander Veen cautions that the law in Ontario does not allow a farmer to do custom tiling for others. You can buy a plow and tile your own land, but only licensed contractors can tile someone else’s. “I have seen a lot of farmer-installed tile drainage and I compare it to do-it-yourself electrical wiring jobs. It can be fine, or it can be a disaster. Licensed contractors have to pass numerous rigorous tests and complete an apprenticeship. Their plows are also tested. A poor tiling job is worse than no tile, because it causes wet spots.”

While installation is becoming more and more efficient, both Wallace and Vangorp point to the rising cost of plastic drainage pipe as a challenge. “The cost of tile has risen almost 10 cents a foot over last year to about 45 cents a foot,” Vangorp says. High demand and few suppliers are driving the price hikes, even though lower oil prices should translate to cheaper tile.

Manitoba and beyond

With the strong revenue potential in parts of Western Canada in recent years, more farmers in Manitoba are considering tile drainage. John Vangorp has 45 years of experience as a tile drainage contractor in Ontario, but he recently bought a farm in eastern Manitoba and says there are places in Western Canada where it makes sense to put in tile, especially where high-value crops like potatoes are grown.

There are some significant differences that jump out at him. First, there is little in the way of established infrastructure of municipal drains or outlets that farmers can access to take away water. This is a significant challenge. “In some cases you would have to pump away the water collected by tile drains, which means you probably need electrical power nearby,” Vangorp says.

Lack of slope or “fall” is another challenge that is not common in Ontario but can be on the Prairies, with some places having as little as one foot of slope over one mile.

Controlled tile drainage

Flat terrain can be an advantage, though. An emerging concept called controlled tile drainage is actually a better fit for areas that do not have much elevation change. The main difference between standard tile drainage and controlled drainage is that the system is designed to allow water to get away but valves or controls are built into the system so when moisture is needed for plant growth and development, water is retained by closing the controls.

“We are seeing economic benefit to controlled drainage – it makes sense for certain crops, soil types and land profiles. Managing it has been a bit of a challenge. Growers need to turn valves on or off depending on the time of year and whether they want to keep or get rid of water. Slogging out to wet fields during a deluge to open a series of valves was problematic,” Rudy explains.

The good news is that with automated solar-powered valve controls or even the ability to operate the system from a smart phone, the management will get much easier. “Places like Manitoba that have no existing tile drainage in place are well positioned to try controlled drainage because there is no working around tile that is already there,” Rudy says.

In many regions of the country, even though too much water can be an issue, tiling isn’t feasible because of economics, topography or the availability of drainage. However, in regions where the practice is feasible, the productivity and conservation gains have been remarkable.

From an AgriSuccess article (Jan./Feb. 2016) by Peter Gredig (@Agwag).