Dryland Sask. pays attention to tile drainage

An installer says the system works in dry years because roots grow down faster, making plants more drought resilient

On the surface, the idea of installing a tile drainage system in the middle of a prairie-wide drought might seem counter-intuitive.

But the benefits of tile drainage are evident during dry cycles and wet cycles, says Olaf Boettcher, a licensed tile drainage installer and owner of Precision Drainage Solutions in Saskatoon.

It’s about managing water, increasing the value of farmland and turning unproductive ground into land that produces more consistent yields, regardless of climatic conditions.

“Some people think that tile drainage sucks the water out of your ground but it doesn’t. All it does is remove excess or gravitational water,” says Boettcher.

“Basically, what we’re doing is dropping the water table in the field….

“Even in really dry years, we see good yield responses because your root growth goes down that much faster and your crops are a lot more drought-resilient that way.”

Boettcher has been involved in tile drainage for most of his life.

He grew up on a family farm near Listowel, Ont., in an area where tile drainage is common.

The family farm where Boettcher grew up has tile drainage installed from corner to corner.

“I’d say nearly 95 percent of the farmland in the area has tile drainage,” he says.

“The economics of tile drainage are very clear in southern Ontario.”

Boettcher’s company has been in business in Saskatchewan for three years and has seen steady growth during that time.

Tile drainage is still a relatively new idea in the province but one that’s gaining momentum.

A string of wet years, combined with rising land prices, has prompted more landowners to look for ways to remediate flood-prone land and maximize arable acres.

After moving to Saskatoon a few years back to complete a degree in agricultural business, Boettcher saw an opportunity to put his experience and knowledge of the tile drainage industry to work.

Precision has installed dozens of systems over the past three years and has dozens more in the works.

Most of its installations are located within a 100-kilometre radius of Saskatoon, but interest is growing across the province.

Boettcher’s current project, located about 100 km northeast of Saskatoon, is designed to remove about 250 gallons of groundwater per minute from 54 acres of low-lying, flood-prone land near the South Saskatchewan River.

“When we got here, we couldn’t get our equipment on to the field,” he says.

“Even the quad was sinking.”

Within a few days, they managed to get the main drainage line installed and connect a handful of lateral runs.

At that point, the partially finished system was already removing around 4.7 gallons of groundwater per minute per acre.

Landowner Jamie Wall says he finally decided to invest in a long-term solution after several years of trying to work the field and bring it under production.

“It’s always been wet, as long as I’ve owned it,” he says.

Wall’s project will involve the installation of roughly 47,000 feet of perforated plastic pipe, specifically designed for tile drainage applications.

A 10-inch diameter main line will run diagonally from the centre of the project to field’s perimeter.

From there, the main will run a few hundred metres along the field’s edge before emptying into a natural water run that feeds into the South Saskatchewan River.

A grid of four-inch lateral lines will feed into the 10-inch main.

The lateral lines will be installed at 50-foot spacings and buried at a depth of three feet, using RTK-quality GPS.

Boettcher’s crew uses a self-propelled, track driven Bron 550 tile plow.

The plow places pipes at a precise depth and grade to prevent water accumulation inside the network.

Precision’s systems are designed by a specialized software application that determines outflows, line spacings, installation depths and the materials used, based on a variety of factors including soil type and topography.

All drainage projects in the province must be permitted and approved by the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency.

In Ontario, all tile drainage installers must be licensed by the province. In Saskatchewan, there is no licensing criteria.

“Our systems are designed to have a very consistent depth throughout the field so we can get an even water table and a consistent amount of capillary rise for even crop growth,” says Boettcher.

System costs — including survey work, design, permitting and installation — can vary depending on the complexity of the system.

In general, however, complete system costs fall in a range of $1,000 to $1,200 per acre.

“We install on a per-foot basis, so as the job gets more complex, it gets more expensive as well,” Boettcher says.

“It’s not for everyone, but it’s a long-term investment that increases productivity and land values.

“At the end of the day, every project needs to show economic benefit to the farmer for it to make sense.”

Wall says he’s hopes his investment will begin to pay dividends within a few months.

If installation goes well, he’s hoping to have the remediated land planted to green feed before the middle of June.

“I’ve never seen this field where it was dry enough to seed,” Wall says.

“Eventually, I’m hoping this will become one of the most productive pieces of land that I own.”

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