Hidden in the hills west of Bentley, an eight-mile system of black plastic tubing snakes its way underground through the low areas, silently sucking excess moisture out of the saturated valleys that have made working the land a struggle for area farmers like Jason Lenz.
But since installing his tile drainage system nearly 30 years ago, Lenz has regained between five to 10 per cent of productive farmland — and easily earned back his investment.
“It’s pretty easy to gain back 10 acres on a quarter that needs tile drainage,” said Lenz, who operates a mixed farm near Bentley. “And the more acres you gain, the quicker the payback is.”
Still a relatively novel practice in Alberta, tile drainage was one of the only options Lenz had in the 1980s when he installed his first 37,000 feet of tile.
“I was tired of going around sloughs,” he said.
Between the contractor and the supplies, it cost Lenz nearly $50,000 to install the system — a price tag that has only climbed in the years since.
“It’s a lot of money to put in, but the payback is pretty quick on it,” said Lenz. “If you start growing crops on areas you didn’t have crops before, there’s obviously a pretty quick return on your investment.”
And every field that’s been tiled has seen some benefit, he said. One half-section that lies at the bottom of a long hill was “one of the wettest halves in the area.”
“Since we’ve put the tile drainage in, we’ve pretty much farmed it corner to corner.”
Another field just across the road had a low-lying area that couldn’t produce a crop until it was tiled in 1999.
“The guys who farmed it before us never could grow anything in this low area,” said Lenz. “Since we put the tile in, we’ve farmed it every year.”
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Reclaimed acreage is one of the greatest benefits of tiling, said Kent Rodelius, sales manager at Prinsco, which produces tile drainage systems.
“It’s a much cheaper way to increase your production rather than increasing your acreage,” he said. “It’s probably the fastest payback of anything you can do on your ground.”
Tiling also allows “more timely access to your fields” both in the spring and at harvest, making it easier to seed in one pass and to get a crop off during a wet fall.
“It’s a much more uniform way of farming, and the economic return is absolutely what drives farmers to manage the water on their fields,” said Rodelius.
“It makes a big difference when you can farm on a square. You can just go back and forth. You don’t have all those corners around sloughs.”
That’s exactly what Craig Shaw was looking for when he tiled last year.
“The tile has allowed us to square up our fields and allowed us to seed from one end to the other,” said Shaw, a mixed grain farmer near Lacombe. “That’s huge in terms of time and logistics and overlaps.”
In the last five years, Shaw has seen an increase in waterlogged areas in his fields — and his stress level. But 30 inches of rain during the 2011 growing season was the real wake-up call.
“We started to realize that all our best land was producing nothing,” he said. “You get in a wet year, you work twice as hard to get half as much.
“It’s been a godsend for us.”
Where it goes
At Lenz’s farm, the tiling system is running at a trickle now, thanks to a dry — or at least drier — summer. But earlier this spring, the water was running at full speed.
“This thing runs three months a year,” said Lenz. “As soon as it thaws — so May, June, and half of July — it will run three-quarters to right full of water.”
Shaw was surprised by “how much water is flowing, how quickly, and how long” on his own farm. And all that water has to go somewhere, he said.
“You need to be aware of where your water goes when it leaves your property. The key is don’t impact your neighbours,” said Shaw.
Alberta Environment doesn’t require permits for tile drainage, but in provinces like Manitoba, where tiling is widespread, producers must go through a lengthy approval process for drainage projects, in part to limit the impact to neighbouring farms.
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Rural municipalities have the same concerns, Lenz said.
“Check with your county or your municipality and make sure wherever you’re going to place your water outlet is OK,” said Lenz, who drains one outlet into a dugout and the other into a ditch on his own land.
“Lots of times, putting it in the roadside ditch isn’t the best because it wrecks the road eventually.”
However, if done properly, “you could do your neighbours a benefit” by tiling, said Shaw.
“A lot of times, your moisture issues are your neighbour’s moisture issues. If you can clean your issues up, it’s less of an issue for them.”
By tiling, producers are “lowering the water table,” said Shaw. “But the tile will only flow when there’s excess moisture over the holding capacity of the soil. When it’s dry, nothing happens.”
The “golden rule” of drainage is to remove only as much water as needed and no more, said Rodelius.
“The tile does not dry out the land so it’s not useful. It just reduces it down to a manageable level so it’s the best possible scenario for the crop.”
Because of that, tile drainage is best in areas that receive “substantial rainfall.”
“Where they grow row crops and high-value crops is generally where there is most of the water table management systems put in,” said Rodelius.
“Not all areas are suitable, but a high percentage of farmland is adaptable to tile drainage.”
But whether producers will be willing to spend the high upfront costs remains to be seen.
Shaw spent between 50 cents to $1.20 a foot for his tile. The equipment needed to install the system — a plow, GPS monitors and controls, and (ideally) an RTK system — will run another $100,000 or more. Some farmers are sharing the cost of the machinery with their neighbours, while others are flipping the equipment as soon as the tiling is installed.
“With the new renewed interest, there’s a ready market,” said Shaw.
The installation doesn’t need to be done all at once either, said Lenz, who will be installing another branch line soon.
“You can do it based on your budget or your field needs,” he said. “It’s really easy, especially now with GPS, to add branch lines to your original system. The key is to put in a big enough main line that has capacity to add to it in the future.”
For Shaw, the returns he’s seen so far have been worth the high price tag.
“We’re farming our good ground — ground we wouldn’t get before,” he said. “The tile is a higher cost up front, but it’s there every year.”