Save money: move less soil, more water

Achieving good drainage doesn’t always require massive amounts of soil movement

The cost to move soil for a surface drain ranges from $1 to $3.50 per cubic yard, depending on soil type and the distance the soil needs to move.

That means a drainage plan that involves moving 346 cubic yards will cost $346 to $1,211 per acre.

The high-end number seems like a lot of money to improve land that is already being farming, but it’s probably worth the investment if the land in question is productive soil that is being held back from its full potential by ponding, pooling and puddling.

However, what if the proposed project could be run through a software program to create a plan that provides the same degree of drainage but requires moving only 185 cubic yards per acre? The cost drops to $185 to $648 per acre.

That’s what the OptiSurface Designer program accomplishes, according to Garnet Peters, manager of Precision Land Solutions in Winkler Man. It is one of the largest surface and tile drainage companies in Manitoba.

“We punch in the exact parameters the client wants. The program can handle virtually any scenario. For example, if you’re a potato producer and you want your rows running north-south but your field flows to the east, we can plug that into the Designer,” Peters said.

“The software puts in your rows at the correct height they’ll be in reality, then shows you what kind of dams the rows will create. Plus, it gives you a ponding map. Once you’ve plugged in a topographical map and set the parameters, you can ask for anything. You can ask for a four-way design so water runs north, south, east or west off the field.”

Peters said water always follows the path of least resistance. A four-way design is usually efficient but isn’t always practical, depending on which sides the neighbours have fields. The OptiSurface Designer easily deals with all these factors.

A two-way or three-way design is sometimes the best compromise, but clients often end up with just a one way design that has all water running through their own property.

“Because of neighbours, we seldom get a design where you can let the water run down the path of least resistance,” said Peters.

The idea is to move as little dirt as possible and still move enough water to achieve good drainage without ponding. However, pools of water are sometimes locked in behind significant mounds of soil.

The conventional method is to dig through the hill with a deep, wide ditch, but this major cut usually gets down into the B and C soil horizons and won’t allow field equipment to work those ditched acres.

The dilemma is that farmers can’t farm the potholes if they don’t drain them. As a result, they either lose productive acres by leaving the ponds or they lose productive acres by digging a big drainage ditch.

That’s the challenge Mark Penner faced two years ago with a quarter section northwest of Carman, Man. The land had enough slope to move water effectively, but numerous swails served as dams that caused water to pool.

“Some of these holes were six feet deep. When you drove along with the tractor, it seemed like you were sinking out of sight. Well, what in the world can you do with potholes like that?” Penner said.

“(Precision) made a three dimensional plan they followed with their equipment. They took two feet off the tops of some ridges and pulled that soil into the holes. Some of the ridges they removed completely and pulled all the soil into the holes.

“Right now, you can’t even see where those ridges had been. It’s pretty close to flat. We still have the natural drainages through the quarter and it still has the natural slope to it. From north to south, it’s probably about a six foot elevation change. East to west is a little over three feet. It’s good enough to move water off the field.”

A major feature of the project is that there are no major ditches to impede machinery movement.

“In fact, they didn’t even bother to enhance any of the natural water ways. They actually left them alone. That’s a good thing,” he said.

“We went into this land purchase not knowing whether or not we’d have to subsoil. Here, south of Wink-ler where we live, at places you don’t dare take even a foot of soil away before you hit dirt that you just don’t want to farm.

“A lot of the land on this quarter had been bush before I bought it, so I had a lot of drift dirt in my bush. That’s all good quality soil.”

Penner said the project cost him slightly more than $17,000 including theOptiSurface Designer work. He feels $100 per acre is a good deal because it reduces his risk on the quarter in rainy years and increases profitability in all years.

“If we hadn’t done this drainage project, there would have been about 40 acres I couldn’t have farmed this year,” he said.

“Plus, we would have had the hassle of trying to drive machinery around those ponds. There’s a lot of value in driving in a straight line.”

For more information, contact Peters at 204-331-3003 or visit www.precisionlandsolutions.ca. Penner can be contacted at 204-362-0446.

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