Handling wet soils a farm show focus

WEST FARGO, N.D. -- Big Iron again put agriculture's best foot forward as thousands flocked to the farm show's exhibits and field demonstrations Sept. 13 to 15 at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds in West Fargo, N.D.

Field demo
Hundreds of Big Iron show-goers attended field tile demonstrations on Sept. 13, the first day of the event's three-day run at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds in West Fargo. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)

WEST FARGO, N.D. -- Big Iron again put agriculture's best foot forward as thousands flocked to the farm show's exhibits and field demonstrations Sept. 13 to 15 at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds in West Fargo, N.D.

Bryan Schulz, the show manager, says attendance at the 31st annual event seemed well into the range of 75,000 to 80,000, and may have set a record for unknown reasons -- "the weather, the economy," he speculates.

One of the hottest topics at this year's show -- besides newer, larger, more expensive equipment -- seemed to be anything to do with coping with wet soil conditions. Hundreds of show-goers bunched up to hear field demonstrations on tile drainage systems, using equipment from Ellingson Cos. to install a system on the 70-acre demonstration field that is among Big Iron's biggest draws. Ellingson and various industry leaders in GPS guidance systems, pumps and other ancillary industries, were undergirded by a lineup of North Dakota State University Extension Service and research experts, who talked about the benefits and unknowns about tiling.

Water, weather

and management


As farmers face higher land values and higher financial risks in growing crops, and as the recent weather and climate pattern has turned wetter, farmers are in a boom time for drainage tile. One official at the event suggested that perhaps 7 percent of the Red River Valley soils may already be tiled, leaving a lot of land as yet untiled.

Hans Kandel, an NDSU agronomist, talked about research is showing mostly positives for tiling. Among other things, soybean growers on tiled ground in the Red River Valley, typically can get into the fields more quickly because the it takes less solar energy to warm up drier, tiled soil. With the same amount of seed, more plants can are established.

One of the benefits of tiling is its ability to offset the effects of "saline" or salt soils. These are salts that are water-soluble. When water tables get excessively high, as they are in many places in the Red River Valley and region, the water brings these salts to the surface and deposits them in the top profile, preventing some crops from growing well.

Bernt Nelson is a farmer from La-

Moure, N.D. Nelson, who watched the tile demonstration with special interest, says he and his younger brother, Don, are studying the feasibility of someday tiling some 900 acres in the operation that still is headed by their father, Ben Nelson. Bernt graduated college in December, and his brother, a junior at NDSU, is studying soil types to create a plan they may implement years down the road.

"It takes, what -- 18 months -- just to get on a list to get a plow?" Bernt says. "We've considered starting with a small acreage along the river, but one major catch we've run into is the river levels. You can't drain something (when river water) is covering your land. That's becoming a larger and larger issue for everyone in the river valley."

Besides the soluble salts, some experts addressed the "sodic" salt, where sodium that is attached to clay particles, which can prevent water from infiltrating through the clays at tile depths.

Soil, sodium and study


Dave Hopkins, an NDSU professor who works in soil geography and properties, says before farmers jump head-first into tiling, they first should look at existing soil characterization data and consider getting some deep soil chemistry to determine soil electrical conductivity, and the sodium absorption ratio. There are two of these tests -- one exchangeable sodium percentage and the other is the sodium adsorption ratio.

There are some soils in the Red River Valley -- 5 percent or maybe 9 percent -- that have high sodium levels at tile depths. In those cases, if the soluble salt load is reduced, the sodium levels start "exert its influence" and clay dispersion prevent water infiltration.

"You don't want your clays to be negatively charged -- that's what holds onto your nutrients -- you want those clays to be what we call 'flocculated'," or clustered, Hopkins says. Soil aggregation allows water and oxygen movement, and that can't happen if the soils aren't flocculated.

A detailed study from 2005 to 2007 looked at 33 randomly selected soils in Walsh County, N.D. It showed that 27 percent of two important soil types -- Bearden and Glyndon series, found throughout the Red River Valley, and throughout North Dakota and Minnesota, had sodium adsorption ratio levels greater than 13 at the depth of the tile in Walsh County. That means there would be potential long-term problems with tiling. And levels even below those levels could be problematic through time.

Greater risks

Roger Ellingson, president and chief executive officer for the West Concord, Minn.-based company, says more farmers are turning to tiling to offset financial risk. In southern Minnesota, for example, farmers pay $300 an acre for inputs, and land rents are nearly $350 and $400 an acre, Ellingson says.

"You can do the math. You have 2,000 acres of corn times $800, just to get the crop in the ground you've got to borrow $1.6 million," Ellingson says. "Even though things have been good in agriculture, there's a nervousness because the dollars are getting pretty big, and the risk is also big."

Ellingson, whose company is one of the larger operating in the Red River Valley, says some farmers are using spent sugar beet lime or gypsum (calcium sulfate) to knock the sodium off of clay particles and get calcium on the clay complex, but Kandel notes field applications may not penetrate far enough to affect the sodic soils at tile depths of 36 inches or 4 feet.


Willmar, Minn.-based Prinsco Inc., a manufacturer of drainage tile pipe, says it will build a pipe manufacturing plant in the Fargo, N.D.-Moorhead, Minn., area by January in response to "this season's overwhelming demand for agricultural drainage products." The plant will have two production lines, the company says, with plans for a third by the end of 2012. The company opened a plant in February in Beresford, S.D.

Advanced Drainage Systems Inc. of Hilliard, Ohio, opened a pipe plant in mid-March in Buxton, N.D. in a building that once held indoor farm equipment auctions.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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