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Published May 17, 2010, 02:54 PM

Valley tile drainage rises with moisture

FARGO, N.D. — Activity in field tile drainage in the Red River Valley is up from last year — again, industry officials say.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Activity in field tile drainage in the Red River Valley is up from last year — again, industry officials say.

“One guy told me that in this Red River Valley he’s always six weeks from being too dry and six hours from being too wet,” says Max Fuxa, general manager for Ellingson Cos. in the Red River Valley.

Ellingson’s field drainage installation crews had a beautiful April and March.

“The dry early spring was good for farmers, and helped get tiling crews going earlier, too,” Fuxa says. “We have increased interest in drain tile in the Red River Valley because we’ve tended to be a little wet. We’re just busy.”

That’s may be an understatement. Almost 2 million acres in the region went unplanted in 2009 because of wet weather, and some 30 percent of the state’s 2009 corn crop went unharvested in the fall and had to wait until winter and spring.

Installation season

Ellingson has two crews working in the region — from the South Dakota border to Canada, east to the Minnesota tree region and west to about Valley City, N.D.

“We certainly have the option of bringing in more crews if we sell more than our production crews can install,” Fuxa says.

Tile cost per acre increased to a peak in 2008 but has come down since then and has been “pretty even” through 2009 and into 2010, Fuxa says.

“Every field is different and has its own unique topography and soils,” Fuxa says. “Tile prices can range from $500 an acre to $800, depending on those factors.”

Other issues include the grade or whether there is an outlet or water has to be pumped.

The time for acquiring government approval can be challenging, Fuxa says, but that also varies on a case-by-case, field-by-field situation.

“There’s some watersheds in Minnesota that don’t require permits, but in North Dakota, we simply follow guidelines from the state of North Dakota, the local water boards and the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service). Sometimes, flowage easements are required, and in some cases, they have been difficult to obtain.”

Fuxa notes that the field drainage is designed to get water off of fields during the growing season. The tile systems have little impact during spring floods, but pumps can be turned off to minimize their impact on a spring flood, when necessary.

Ellingson also installs controlled drainage structures — devices that can hold back water during the growing season.

“For most people, that’s on their permit that they have to,” Fuxa says.

Further, they can use the systems to do “subsurface irrigation,” when desirable.

“We can put water into the tile and irrigate when times are dry in July or August,” he says.

Only a small percentage of tiled land operators currently have that capability.

“It’s something new,” Fuxa says. “We’re talking about it more.”

More interest, research

Tom Scherer, North Dakota State University agricultural engineer, says several hundred farmers have been showing up for private and public informational events on tile drainage the past few winters. A long-term yield increase is a 10 to 15 percent increase, he says. Scherer says NDSU research on tile drainage currently is under way on several issues:

-Scherer and Roxanne Johnson, a North Dakota State University engineer, are in the second of a five-year project with soil and water conservation districts that monitors the quality and quality on drain tile water. The project is in North Dakota’s Walsh, Grand Forks, Steele, Traill, Cass, Richland, Sargent and Ransom counties. Many sites will have automated equipment that measures samples when the tile is flowing.

- Xinhua Jia (pronounced “shin WA”) from the NDSU ag engineering department, has completed two years of a sub-surface irrigation project near Fairmont, N.D. Two years of data on a 100-acre field so far indicates that water sub-irrigation has a slightly increased yield on corn. It’s so far unclear whether the process increases an unwanted sodium build-up.

n Hans Kandel at NDSU is doing yield research on tile versus non-tile ground at the 12th Avenue North and Interstate 29 test plots in Fargo, N.D. Last year was the first year, so results are unclear. Penetrometer studies will show equipment is easier to run in the tiled soil. Kandel is looking at the value of access to the fields.