Subsurface tile has benefits

PARK RIVER, N.D. -- There have been some fantastic years recently in the agriculture industry in North Dakota and throughout the United States. We have record prices, record yields and new technologies that are increasing our profitability and pr...

PARK RIVER, N.D. -- There have been some fantastic years recently in the agriculture industry in North Dakota and throughout the United States.

We have record prices, record yields and new technologies that are increasing our profitability and promoting better farming and stewardship practices. As a farmer, I am excited for the years ahead. We have hope, yet we have challenges.

North Dakota never has been more important to world food production as it is today; however, nearly two decades of unrelenting rainfall has taken its toll on our soil. Ph levels in the soil are increasing because of saturated ground, cutting yields and creating environmental issues. The need for strong and quick movement on this issue is important.

Proven practice

For more than 200 years, farmers in this country and beyond have been using subsurface tile to control excess water in the soil profile.


North Dakota farmers have been behind the curve for various reasons. The greatest has been a lack of education on the issue.

Subsurface tile utilizes a technique of placing plastic perforated pipe 3 to 4 feet under the surface of the earth in a pattern that is based on the topography of the land and other factors. The discharge pipe usually is about 8 inches in diameter with a project 100 acres or fewer. The discharge goes into a ditch or a natural waterway.

Improved soil profile

By removing excess water in times when rivers and streams are not flooding, the soil profile is open to accept more water when heavy rains and flooding occurs.

It also allows for deeper root development so plants properly can access nutrients and water. As a result, organic matter levels eventually increase in the soil. More organic matter means better plant growth, more water absorption and increased yields and profits.

Soil only is capable of so much saturation. Tiling removes only what the soil cannot hold. Nutrients such as phosphorous become "trapped" in heavily saturated soils, requiring larger application of fertilizers which, in turn, can end up in a body of water.

By removing excess water, phosphorous is more readily available to the plant and fewer fertilizer applications are required. If land is tiled and not saturated with water, nitrogen applications can be done in smaller, timelier manners to avoid large single applications, which often leach into the water.

Chemical leaching and overall soil health is vastly improved by tiling applications.


The naturally occurring bacteria and other microorganisms found in the soil benefit from added air and reduced salinity. These organisms contribute to the breakdown of harmful chemicals and beneficial organic matter, turning the soil profile into a live, healthy environment. The net result is better crop quality and less risk of ground water contamination by farm chemicals.

The impacts on spring flooding and heavy summer rains generally are opposite of what one may think. Tiling creates a "sponge effect" on the land, preparing soil to absorb waters that normally would become "runoff."

The net effect is reduced flooding. Water is drained over days and weeks as opposed to hours. During the crop season, tiled land will, in fact, reduce the gross amount of water that flows downstream. This is caused by the increased crop production because of the elimination of poor crop ground. Healthier crops use more water.

Flood relief

The possibility of avoiding large, expensive flood relief projects by utilizing tile is real. Imagine eliminating the need to place taxes on the people or lobby Washington for funds to build dikes or diversions and instead allow farmers to pay for the projects themselves. Farmers will get a tremendous profit increase and city dwellers will see the need for costly flood insurance disappear. That cost savings most certainly will help drive up local economies.

Critics should be aware that tiling is regulated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. NRCS sets rules that prevent wetlands from being drained and the proximity that a tile line can be to a wetland or river.

The process of tiling has been cumbersome to permit in the past.

Currently, the North Dakota Legislature is pursuing legislation to address this process. The intent is to remove erroneous processes and bottlenecks and to protect landowners. There also is legislation to assist with the capitalization of tiling projects, promote the expansion of these projects and properly define the benefits of subsurface tile.


Needless to say, the Legislature is being proactive this session to advance this technology that will increase our productive edge by approximately 30 percent. That means better food supplies, better food quality, more tax revenue and a stronger economy.

The future for sustainable agriculture in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota and beyond is wholly dependent upon the expanded use of subsurface tile.

Editor's Note: Miller represents District 16 in the North Dakota Senate. He farms near Fordville, N.D., with his family.

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