Irrigation - Another part of the picture

Water is a complex thing to try to manage – just ask any kid who has designed a sandbox moat or mud-canal system across the yard.  Farmers, and their crops, depend on having the right amounts of rain, at the right times; and “right” depends on the farmer, soil type, and specific crop.  Managing all of these variables is no small task.  Hence the intricate relationship between drainage and irrigation.

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This week we have been posting about drainage, but that is only part of the picture.  Irrigation is also part of developing an overall water management strategy and plan. On our farm, we have also been busy investigating irrigation options, regulation and permitting procedures. 

In Manitoba, the most common type of irrigation is an above ground pivot.  However, there are other types of irrigation, such as water cannons and straight-line systems.  Regardless of the water delivery mechanism, the whole irrigation strategy depends on finding a stable water source.  The government manages the demands on the local water supplies, and places a primary concern on maintaining the water quality and quantity to existing customers.  Until recently, no more water rights were available in our area, due to these considerations.

Recently, some projects that had requested water rights were not completed, and so there was an opportunity to access exploration permits. The water stewardship division of the Manitoba government is responsible for issuing exploration permits.  These permits specify the terms and conditions under which construction of wells, including both test wells and functional wells, can occur.  Once a project is complete, a water rights license specifies the terms for a particular project.

We are still in the early phases of investigating how both tile drainage and irrigation can play a role on our farm.  Both require significant preparatory work with regard to planning and permits and they both involve significant infrastructure investments.  Our challenge right now is to craft a plan that takes into account the financial, environmental and logistical factors of taking on such projects.

Water Management

Soil is one of the three critical elements to healthy plants, so optimizing soil conditions is a high priority for farmers.  There are a lot of elements of soil health that are beyond control, like soil temperature.  However, managing water and salinity have become increasingly important on our farm.  This has lead us to start investigating our options.

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Last summer I began listening to the Hefty brothers talk about the importance of tile drainage.  Essentially, tile drainage is a series of underground pipes designed to manage excess water by routing it intentionally, thus lowering the water table to below the depth of the tile line.

Their message was still loud and clear at the soils clinic held in Winnipeg last month – tile drainage is the highest-impact, long-term investment you can make in your land.  They point to these five benefits of tile:

  • Tile reduces erosion

  • Tile reduces flooding

  • Tile improves downstream water quality

  • Tile improves roads

  • Tile helps farmers maximize production on current farmland, which leaves non-crop land for relaxation and recreation

However, tile requires dedicated time and planning: obtaining permits and developing land maps for the tile installation is a process.  Due to the extensive nature of this pre-installation work, this is an opportunity to work together and build trust with companies offering mapping and/or tile services.  Once this phase is complete, the actual installation requires significant investments by landowners and their financial institutions.

The mole plow seeks to address the high cost of tile, by providing a lower cost alternative.  Essentially, mole tile is a subsurface tunnel, without the infrastructure of the pipe.  So, while the planning stages are similar to that of tile, the infrastructure cost is much lower.  In exchange, the lifespan of mole tile, is also shorter, and is very dependent on the soil type and consistency.  In January, at Ag Days  in Brandon, we investigated this option for some of our fields, particularly those located alongside a natural ravine.   

Keep reading to keep learning along with us, as we continue to do our homework about tile, irrigation and their relationship to each other as part of our overall water management strategy.