Tile drainage can make land more sustainable

In much of Manitoba, this fall was the season of tractor tire ruts.

From late August until the middle of October, about 200 millimetres of rain and snow fell on southern Manitoba and North Dakota.

The excess precipitation turned farm fields into soup, and growers struggled to get combines and tractors on the land. Some farmers got stuck and many created massive ruts in their fields. But others, with tile drainage, caused less damage.

“The guys that had fields that were tiled, they had ruts, but they weren’t the one foot deep ruts…. They were a few inches (deep),” said Tom Scherer, a drainage and irrigation expert with North Dakota State University.

“And they were able to get their soybeans (harvested).”

Most growers on both sides of the border did get their soybeans, corn, wheat and other crops harvested in 2019, but a large portion of the harvest was delayed until the soil froze in November, when fields were firm enough to support equipment.

A harvest season with 200 mm of rain is a rarity in the northern U.S. Plains and Canadian Prairies, but extreme weather events may be the new normal.

“We have encountered drought and excess moisture in the same farming year,” Bill Campbell, a farmer from Minto, Man, wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in November.

“We are looking for federal leadership to ensure that our operations remain sustainable so that we can continue to be an economic driver in this country.”

If droughts or floods cut more deeply into crop production, agriculture will struggle to be an economic driver.

For instance, potato growers in Manitoba and North Dakota took a massive hit because of horribly wet conditions this fall. An estimated $100 million worth of potatoes could not be harvested.

The solution to such losses might be found in three letters: CTD.

“Controlled (tile) drainage is the use of one or more flow restricting devices (stop logs, risers, gates, and valves) placed inline with the tile drainage pipes, allowing the water level in the field to be artificially set,” the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute wrote in a 2018 paper.

Parts of the Prairies have too much water in the spring and too little in the summer months. Controlled drainage is a way to store water in the field, making it available when needed or removed when needed.

Research from Ontario and the United States suggests CTD increases corn and soybean yields by three to 11 percent.

Such yield gains are dependent on weather, but there’s little doubt that CTD reduces the year-to-year variation in yield.

“As such, CTD should be considered a risk mitigation practice that can help protect producers from crop losses and could potentially stabilize yields over the long term,” said a 2017 research paper from the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association.

The added benefit is it reduces the outflow of nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural land.

“Improvement in water quality is considered a public benefit attributed to CTD,” said the Ontario paper.

“The public benefits associated with CTD retrofits may justify public investment (in CTD).”

There are financial benefits for producers and environmental benefits for the public, but few Canadian farmers have fields with CTD.

The Manitoba government is trying to change that, at least in a small way.

Under its Ag Action program, CTD qualifies as a beneficial management practice and is eligible for taxpayer support.

If a farmer completes an environmental farm plan, the province will share the cost of installing control structures for a tile drainage system to a maximum of $50,000.

A provincial government official who spoke off the record said the budget of the entire Ag Action program is in the millions of dollars rather than tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars.

“It’s missing a couple of zeros.”

In other words, the financial incentive will encourage a few producers to adopt CTD, but not hundreds of producers.

Installing tile drainage costs about $600 to $900 per acre. The additional cost of CTD depends upon the number of control structures per field.

If the federal government was willing to kick in more cash, much more, over the next few decades, it might be possible to have millions of acres with CTD in Western Canada.

In the meantime, producers may have noticed that their neighbour, who has tile-drained land, had more success in 2019.

Tile helped with excess moisture this fall, but it also helps in the spring.

“They could get (on fields) in spring a week or 10 days earlier on the pieces that were tiled,” said Sandi Loewen of K & S Tile in Altona, Man.

“This year that made a big difference with harvest.”

Investing in CTD does require a change in farming philosophy, Loewen said.

For decades, prairie farmers have focused on getting bigger — more acres and more bushels. CTD is about investing in an existing land base.

“It’s a whole new mentality,” she said. “How can we become more efficient with the land that we have and also create that sustainability.”

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