Tile drainage still makes sense, supporters say

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Garth Kruger is taking the long view on tile drainage, aka "agricultural subsurface drainage" and "subsurface water management."...

Jim Walker, safety officer of Barnett Bros. Inc., gives a safety presentation on Thursday, March 2, 2017 to guests of a tile drainage workshop at the Grand Forks county office building. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)(Embargoed until March 13, 2017)

 GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Garth Kruger is taking the long view on tile drainage, aka "agricultural subsurface drainage" and "subsurface water management."

Though tile drainage might not make great financial sense in the short term, the Warren, Minn, farm still sees it as strong long-term investment.

"I've got young children. When you consider them, the next generation, you take a different view of this," he said.

Kruger was among about 45 Minnesota, North Dakota and Canadian agriculturalists who attended a tile drainage design workshop March 2-3 in Grand Forks, N.D. The event was a collaborative effort of the University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University extension services.

Tile drainage involves installing underground pipes in fields to regulate subsurface water and help plant roots develop properly, improving yields. Tile drainage originally used short lengths of clay pipes known as tiles. Plastic tubing with small perforations is used now. Excess subsurface moisture slowly flows into the tubing and is taken to a ditch or other outlet.


Traditionally, tile drainage was rare in northwest Minnesota and northeast North Dakota, in part because farmers felt the area's flat fields worked against the practice.

But improving technology and the area's wet cycle that began in the early 1990s encouraged farmers to install tile drainage, as did high crop prices and strong farm profits from 2008-13. In the past few years, however, crop prices and farm profitability have slumped, cutting into the appeal of tile drainage in the region.

But farmers and landowners shouldn't be overly influenced by poor crop prices, tile drainage supporters say.

"You need to consider what's best for the next 30, 40 years," said Hans Kandel, an NDSU extension agronomist whose work includes research into higher yields and other benefits of tile drainage.

Installing tile drainage "is an investment in your property" that makes financial sense in the long run, said Gary Nordick, territory sales manager for Advanced Drainage Systems Inc., which had a booth at the Grand Forks workshop.

Opportunities remain

Nobody has a firm handle on much tile drainage has been installed recently in the area, said Tom Scherer, NDSU extension agricultural engineer whose work includes tile drainage.

Regardless of the number, many fields remain good candidates for tile drainage installation, he and other experts say.


Tiling costs are calculated on a per-foot basis, but generally work out to about $800 per acre. The amount can be bigger or smaller, depending on the size of the project and how much of the installation, if any, is done by the landowner rather than a contractor, officials say.

Every tile drainage project is different, and no single system works best on every field, said Gary Sands, a University of Minnesota professor and extension engineer.

Tile drainage of farmland is sometimes criticized by people outside agriculture as a contributor to spring flooding. But tile drainage supporters say the reverse is true: that tile drainage removes excess water from fields during the summer, when rivers and other waterways typically are low, and creates more water storage capacity in fields during the spring, reducing the amount of water in swollen waterways.

"There are some people who are starting to recognize that. And there are some who still don't," Scherer said.

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