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Published September 16, 2013, 09:26 AM

Managing water

Common sense may suggest that tile drainage and irrigation won’t both be popular at the same time in the same region. Weather conditions that favor one would seem to work against the other.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

WEST FARGO, N.D. — Common sense may suggest that tile drainage and irrigation won’t both be popular at the same time in the same region. Weather conditions that favor one would seem to work against the other.

But farmers in the Red River Valley have strong interest in both tile drainage and irrigation, viewing the two as valuable “water management” tools, officials say.

“I don’t see interest slowing down, on either side,” says Tom Scherer, a North Dakota State University Extension Service official whose work includes tile drainage and irrigation.

In either case, whether it’s removing surplus water from fields or providing needed moisture to them, “We’re managing water,” he says.

Scherer attended the annual Big Iron Farm Show Sept. 10 to 12 in West Fargo, N.D. A number of irrigation and tile drainage companies exhibited their products at the show.

One sign of the growing emphasis on water management: Prinsco, a Big Iron exhibitor and tile drainage manufacturer, refers to itself as a “water management solutions” company.

“Our goal is helping to manage water,” says Mike O’Neill, a Fargo, N.D.-based regional sales representative for the Wilmar, Minn.-based company.

Until recently, tile drainage was relatively rare in the Upper Midwest. But the region’s wet cycle that began in 1993, which regularly left some fields waterlogged, caused farmers to check into tile drainage.

Soaring land prices are a factor, too.

In North Dakota, for instance, the average price of cropland has shot to $1,910, more than double the average price of $800 in 2009, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Minnesota, cropland averages $4,850 per acre, up from an average of $2,610 per acre in 2009, NASS says.

As land prices rise, some farmers, especially ones who want to increase the size of their operations, are deciding that tiling wet, hard-to-farm land makes more economic sense than buying land, Scherer says.

Interest in tile drainage also is growing because farmers who tiled some fields like the results and want to tile more, O’Neill says.

Unusually wet springs in both 2013 and 2011 contribute to interest in tile drainage, too, officials say.

North Dakota has an estimated 4.4 million prevented planting acres this year, second to only the 5.6 million acres that couldn’t be planted in 201l.

O’Neill notes that there’s often a wide divide between how farmers view tile drainage and how much of the general public sees it.

As farmers know, tile drainage involves installing underground pipes in fields to regulate subsurface moisture and to help plant roots develop properly, improving yields.

Some non-farmers inaccurately believe that tile drainage contributes to spring flooding, when in reality the practice reduces it, O’Neill and others say.

Irrigation, technology

Interest in irrigation in the Upper Midwest grew, albeit slowly, even during the region’s wet cycle that began in 1993.

Now, after drought in much of the Upper Midwest in 2012 and widespread dry conditions again this year, there’s stronger interest in irrigation, officials say.

Ever-improving irrigation technology contributes to the growing interest, says Mike Faught, who works in sales for West Fargo’s K&T Irrigation, a Big Iron exhibitor.

His company offers “variable rate irrigation” that it says improves efficiency, lowers production costs and potentially increases profitability.

No two pieces of any field are exactly alike, so it’s important to fine-tune how water is applied throughout the field, he says.

His company’s variable rate irrigation allows a farmer to create more than 5,000 management zones, according to an informational brochure.

New research on irrigation, geared specifically to the Upper Midwest, also makes the practice more useful to farmers here, Scherer says.