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Extension workshop in Grand Forks, ND, covers tile drainage

Brad Thykeson first installed tile drainage in 2009. The Portland, N.D., farmer is quick to say he hasn't become an expert since then -- but he's learned enough to offer a few pointers to other area agriculturalists.

Tile drainage coils
A worker coils drainage pipe made at an expanding Advanced Drainage Systems tile manufacturing plant east of Buxton, N.D. ADS, based at Hilliard, Ohio, continues to expand with drainage needs in the Dakotas.

Brad Thykeson first installed tile drainage in 2009. The Portland, N.D., farmer is quick to say he hasn't become an expert since then -- but he's learned enough to offer a few pointers to other area agriculturalists.

"Water is a resource to be managed, and this helps us to do that," he says.

Thykeson was among the speakers at a subsurface drainage design workshop March 10 and 11 in Grand Forks, N.D. The event, sponsored by North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota Extension, drew about 75 people. That was a few more than organizers expected.

The Grand Forks event was the third and final such workshop in a series hosted by the three state extension services this winter. The two previous workshops, one in Sioux Falls, S.D., and the other in St. Cloud, Minn., attracted a total of about 70 people. That was lower than attendance at extension tile drainage workshops in those communities last year.

Last year's workshops helped answer many questions, contributing to the attendance decline this year, extension officials say.

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But this was the first year the extension service held a tile drainage workshop in Grand Forks, which is in the Red River Valley of northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, an area where tile drainage's popularity is increasing.

Soil salinity is a growing concern in the area, and tile drainage helps manage salinity, says Michael Knudson, a Grand Forks County extension agent.

"A lot of guys are interested in tile drainage in managing saline fields. Tile drainage is essentially a tool for managing subsurface water and the groundwater table," Knudson says. "A lot of our salinity issues are the result of upwelling of groundwater tables during the wet years."

Tile draining involves installing underground pipes in fields to regulate subsurface water and help plant roots develop properly. Short lengths of clay pipes known as tiles were used once; plastic tubes with small perforations are used today. Excess subsurface moisture flows slowly into the tubing and is taken to a ditch or other outlet.

Canadian contingent

Tile drainage, common in some parts of the country for decades, has been working its way north in recent years. The practice is spreading into southern Canada, too; about two dozen attendees at the Grand Forks workshop were from Canada.

Brett Sheffield, president of NextGen Drainage Solutions, was among the Canadians at the workshop. His Pilot Mound, Manitoba-based company specializes in water management solutions in western Canada.

Farmland is increasingly expensive in Canada, just as it is in the U.S., and tile drainage helps make more efficient use of high-priced land that struggles with excess moisture, Sheffield says.

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Grain prices have tumbled in the past two years, cutting sharply into farm profitability and leading some to wonder if interest in adding new tile drainage will decline.

"There are two ways of looking at that," says Tom Scherer, the North Dakota State University Extension Service agricultural engineer who helped to organize the three extension workshops.

"There's less profit (to pay for tile drainage), that's true. But when profits are down, can you afford to have any of your crop drown out?" he says.

Many of the Grand Forks workshop attendees were younger than 40, an encouraging sign of tile drainage's future role, Scherer says.

'Like a sump pump'

Much of the Grand Forks workshop was devoted to the basics of tile drainage and getting started in it. Thykeson, who was asked by extension service officials to speak in Grand Forks, provided a farmer's perspective.

He says "water management" is a better description than "tile drainage" of what farmers are doing.

"Other than my family, land is the most important asset I have. So I want to manage the water and take care of my land," he says.

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Some urban residents question the need for tile drain-

age.

Thykeson says tile drainage helps farmers protect their land, just as sump pumps help homeowners protect their homes.

"What we're doing is like having a sump pump in your basement," he says.

Some of the land on which he installed tile drainage had been too wet to farm in 23 of the previous 25 years.

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