AMENIA, N.D. — He’s installed subsurface tile drainage on about 650 of his family’s 6,500-acre farm, but Rodney Nelson says he thinks it should all be tiled.

Rodney, 54, and his son, Bradley, 27, raise sugar beets, wheat, soybeans, corn and even some industrial hemp, a total of about 4,500 acres, which ranges from Fargo clay to sandy loam.

Rodney started tiling about 20 years ago on a piece of sandy loam soil that had salt deposits that ruined productivity. The ground is flat, so he installed lift pumps into the system.

“I wanted to see if I could lower the water table and take some of the salts out of it,” he says. The results were “fantastic,” he says.

“I’ve always wanted to do more,” Rodney says, but if there are a handful of dry years, “you sort of put it on the back burner and forget about it. When you have a wet year you start thinking a lot more about it again.” Rodney said he thinks “everything should be drain-tiled” on his farm.

Rodney says tiled land around his farmstead is indicating a sugar beet yield this year of 35 to 40 tons an acre while untiled land looks to be averaging 20 tons an acre when including the drown-outs, which may be up to 25% of the field.

Rodney Nelson planted a late-maturing corn crop on tiled land to the east (right) of the rail tracks, north of Amenia, N.D., (right), while a field to the west wasn’t tiled and couldn’t be planted. The corn was 8 feet tall and didn’t “show any water stress at all” on Oct. 7, Nelson says. Photo taken near Amenia, N.D., on Oct. 7, 2019. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Brent Kiehl)
Rodney Nelson planted a late-maturing corn crop on tiled land to the east (right) of the rail tracks, north of Amenia, N.D., (right), while a field to the west wasn’t tiled and couldn’t be planted. The corn was 8 feet tall and didn’t “show any water stress at all” on Oct. 7, Nelson says. Photo taken near Amenia, N.D., on Oct. 7, 2019. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Brent Kiehl)

Bradley says tiling increases his comfort with farming. The heavy, tiled ground will be harvestable soon, while lighter ground is “soup right now.”

“I think it’s good for the environment,” Bradley says. “You’re going to have less runoff and wash-away dirt.” It’ll keep the ditches and rivers cleaner, he says.

Guessing on tiled acres

Tom Scherer, a North Dakota State University Extension Service ag systems management specialist, says a “wild guess” is that tiled acres could account for 10% to 15% of potential farmable acres. Levi Otis, director of government affairs for Ellingson, says his company estimates the figure is probably closer to 5%, based on unofficial reporting from the two dominant pipe manufacturers.

Tom Scherer is a North Dakota State University Extension Extension Service agricultural and biosystems engineer, and irrigation specialist, in Fargo, says there are economic and non-economic benefits to subsurface drainage. Photo taken Oct. 6, 2019 in Fargo. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)
Tom Scherer is a North Dakota State University Extension Extension Service agricultural and biosystems engineer, and irrigation specialist, in Fargo, says there are economic and non-economic benefits to subsurface drainage. Photo taken Oct. 6, 2019 in Fargo. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

The largest percentage of tiling in North Dakota is in Richland County around Wahpeton, and within that the Bois de Sioux River watershed, which may be 20% to 25% tiled.

Derrik Ellingson, vice president of Ellingson Companies’ water management division at Harwood, N.D., says ag drainage accounts for about 30% of his company’s total revenue. (The rest is in oil-and-gas related, horizontal and directional drilling, or environmental clean-up work, as well as water pipeline soundness evaluation.)

Ellingson and colleagues figure their company does about 70% of the professional installations in the Red River Valley. The company has ag projects throughout North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and into Iowa and Wisconsin, as well as other states around the country. No one knows exactly how much subsurface drainage has been installed in the valley.

The Harwood office today has nine plows. The company started operation in southern Minnesota in 1970, and has been in the Red River Valley since 1999 — 20 years. They’ve served thousands of customers, about 200 new projects per year, of varying sizes.

Derrik Ellingson, vice president of Ellingson Companies’ agricultural division, a company that accounts for roughly 70% of drainage projects in the Red River Valley area. Photo taken near Harwood, N.D., on Oct. 7, 2019. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)
Derrik Ellingson, vice president of Ellingson Companies’ agricultural division, a company that accounts for roughly 70% of drainage projects in the Red River Valley area. Photo taken near Harwood, N.D., on Oct. 7, 2019. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

Ellingson says his company offers farmers a computer analysis with proprietary algorithms to help determine the long-term return-on-investment of tiling, as well as determining which fields should be tiled first. The information is helpful for bankers who must back many of the projects.

To make the calculations, the company uses five years of rainfall records, as well as incidence of “yield-impacting events,” of excessive moisture. Ellingson says he sees many ROI projections of 15% to 20% per year over a 10-year future.

Other key factors include soil type and slope, as well as the types of crops grown. If the farmer typically uses potatoes or dry edible beans in the rotation, for example, the benefits of tile drainage — the ROI — will tend to be higher.

Costs can vary

Those higher-value crops “don’t like wet feet,” Ellingson says. Consequently, the design of those systems might be more costly because the value of protection is higher. For most crops, systems are designed to move ¼ inch to ⅜ inch of water in a 24-hour period. Some high-value crops can be designed to move ½ inch a day.

Scherer, says the cost is “highly variable,” depending on spacing, mains, lift stations and surveying, but $1,000 to $1,300 per acre is normal. Otis says the average his company uses is about $1,000 per acre — some higher, some lower. Scherer notes that farmers also install their own, for $200 to $400, but that’s if they already own the equipment. Do-it-yourself projects of less than 80 acres don’t require permits.

Ellingson notes that the Bank of North Dakota in recent years has adopted drain tile as one of the practices eligible for a loan interest buy-down for borrowers with less than $1 million in net worth. The state-owned bank in the past two years has adopted an Ag PACE Extension program, which made all farmers eligible for up to a $50,000 buy-down for up to $500,000 in borrowing, regardless of the landowner’s net worth.

Hans Kandel, a North Dakota State University Extension agronomist, says the value goes beyond simple dollars and cents.

“If you can start planting your tiled field one week before you can plant the other one, actually your whole farm moves one week forward,” Kandel says. “Farmers say it’s not only benefiting their tiled acres, or non-tiled acres.” Timing of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides are also controlled. It also improves the nitrogen efficiency, as well as harvest timeliness and quality.

“One of the funniest things farmers tell me is that they can sleep at night,” he says. “We’re talking about health care” values, he says.

Pilot project to look at effects of tiling

HARWOOD, N.D. — Ellingson Companies and Moore Engineering of Fargo are working with the Red River Basin Commission, and the Cass County Joint Water Board on a pilot study for sub-surface drainage management in the northern part of the county.

Levi Otis, Ellingson’s director of governmental affairs, says the project is planned for 18,000, subwatershed acres, or about 28 square miles, roughly along County Road 4.

Promoters are attempting to raise $7 million to $8 million in grants or other funding sources to be matched by the local landowners. The project will only be approved if the farmers in the area agree and are willing to pay their part.

The U.S. Geological Survey is monitoring flow rates on the outflow in the east.

The North Dakota Health Department is studying how much the tiling affects phosphorus and nitrogen removal. North Dakota State University scientists are looking at the yield changes and economic results.

Friend to the environment

FARGO, N.D. — Critics sometimes blame subsurface drainage for adding to springtime flooding on the Red River. Hans Kandel, a North Dakota State University Extension agronomist, and colleagues, say research indicates the opposite is true.

Flooding: Tile drainage moves water to the ditches earlier in the winter, before frost penetrates 3 feet into the ground where the tile is placed. When spring flooding hits — usually with a heavy snow pack, coupled with excessive rains — the subsurface drainage structures are frozen and water movement is on top of the ground” without effect from tile drainage.

Nitrogen: Especially valued for increasing corn and cereal grain yields— is soluble in water. It is true that water removed from fields through drainage tiling sometimes contains excessive amounts of nitrogen, which can get into streams. Tile removes excess water in the soil profile, allowing crops to thrive and remove more nitrogen that has been provided either naturally because of the breakdown of organic matter or by applying manure or synthetic fertilizers. Iowa research indicates man-made wetlands covering 10% of a watershed can remove 50% of the nitrogen pollution before it hits major rivers, says Levi Otis, director of government affairs for Ellingson Water Management.

Phosphate: Phosphate fertilizer is not water-soluble and some of it in the Red River Basin ends up in Lake Winnipeg. This is primarily from surface drainage during flooding. Proponents of subsurface drainage management should actually improve that. Farmers in Manitoba are increasingly tiling land.

Salts: Naturally-occurring minerals in the soil can naturally rise in water tables. When the water settles on topsoils, the mineral salts can leave soil barren because plants can’t grow. Landowners can use tile drainage to allow sodden soil to produce crops — which take up excess water and nutrients. Some tile projects must be used with “deep-rip” tillage to break up subsurface “hard pans” caused by compaction.

Soil erosion: Much more soil runs into waterways because of surface drainage than through subsurface tile drain pipes. Less soil runoff happens with tile drainage.