Post-2011 flood rush to install tile drains led to many costly mistakes, says vice-president of the newly formed Manitoba Agricultural Water Management Association
A boom in tile drainage resulted in slipshod work and prompted the creation of an association dedicated to ensuring such work is done by reputable operators who know what they are doing.
“The association along with Water Stewardship is working towards a fair way to ensure that tile installers are both properly trained and certified,” said Gord Unger, vice-president of the newly formed Manitoba Agricultural Water Management Association and manager of Ideal Pipe’s western division, a manufacturer of tile drainage systems in Carman.
“If you’re not going to use the right tile and install it right, you might as well dig a hole and throw your money in it, because once it’s buried, you can’t get it back.”
The business of installing tile drainage has exploded in the past four to five years, and the results have been “both good and bad,” Unger said at the recent Special Crops Production Day.
After the unprecedented overland flooding in the spring of 2011 dried up, many farmers rushed to have tile drainage works put in and Ideal Pipe’s production capacity, more than 50 million feet of tile drains a year, was quickly overwhelmed. At that time, it was the only manufacturer of tile drains in Western Canada and was forced to turn customers away in favour of long-term installers and those who had prepaid.
In some cases, drainage pipes were brought in with filter “sock” coverings that were unsuitable for Manitoba soil conditions. Socks with incorrect porosity allow dry soil to enter the pipe and ruin the tile’s drainage capacity in as little as one season.
“We also heard of farmers receiving tiles that were too thin and easily squashed, or pipe that was so thick it couldn’t be unrolled,” said Unger.
Amid the gold rush for pipe, the demand for installers soared. Some farmers and entrepreneurs bought plows and began taking on contracts with “little to no knowledge” of how to install the underground drains properly, he said.
“We’ve heard of tile installations that were too shallow, with incorrect slope, and even the wrong kind of tiles altogether,” said Unger.
Installing tile drains is expensive, he added, and topography, soil type, drain design, and the types of crops grown on fields need to be considered in order for systems to work effectively.
Under rules established in 2009, everything related to surface water needs to be licensed, said Darren Nicklin, the province’s newly appointed senior water resource officer for the western side of the province.
“I’m not the enemy,” joked Nicklin, whose Dauphin office handles water control works and drain licensing.
Licences for “minor” water control works — such as those that won’t negatively impact other lands; affect seasonal, permanent or semi-permanent wetlands; don’t alter water levels more than one foot; or involve excavation of mineral soils — are eligible for “timely” authorization by the province’s 18 enforcement officers at a cost of $25 each.
“We will come out and look at the project with the landowner and sign the licence on the hood of the truck right then and there — if it’s minor,” said Nicklin. “If it’s a major project, that takes a little more time.”
Licences are granted in perpetuity, and each application applies to just one section of land at a time. When filling out the forms, the more information provided on the purpose of the project, the faster it can be processed.
“I’ve seen everything to ‘dig ditch’ or ‘dig hole’ with no diagram or explanation of where,” said Nicklin. “The more information, the better. Put everything in there except the kitchen sink, basically.”
Stan Wiebe, manager of Beaver Creek Farms, first began installing tile drains in 1997, and has been adding several hundred acres on his farm every year since.
“Based on our experience, yes, absolutely, tile pays,” said Wiebe. “If you typically have five to six years out of 10 with yield losses because of excessive moisture as in our case, it’s something you might want to look into.”
He recommends that those thinking of taking the plunge try it on one of their poorest fields first to see if the benefits are worth the investment.
“Choose the fields that you don’t like to drive by,” said Wiebe, adding that once tiled, they might become the most productive acres on the whole farm.