Water

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We just got a much needed rain!  Our crops and pastures were suffering from lack of moisture.  Wind storms were blowing dry soil and cutting off plants, while cattle ranchers were making hard choices about selling their herds.

But we also know that for many farms in the USA, there is far too much water.  Farms are saturated and many acres have not been planted. Even those acres where farmers have been able to “mud in” the crop, the plants are stressed by cold and saturated soil.

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So water affects us all in different ways, and its impact cannot be understated.  On our farm we have been investigating both irrigation and tile drainage options to help with water management.  The initial investment for either type of water management is not small. Each requires a number of preliminary paperwork and regulatory steps, as well as boots on the ground surveys of the land conditions and natural water levels and flows.

Water management is a growing challenge for farmers and needs high tech solutions in order to address sustainability from an environmental and financial standpoint. Keep reading this week as we talk about the impact of water.

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.

PLS Focus Group Reflections

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Peer-to-peer discussions are valuable for many reasons.  It is important to learn about other perspectives, priorities and values and it is interesting to me when this information comes through in a discussion about farming practices.  After participating in a focus group hosted by Precision Land Solutions I left feeling energized and positive about the future of farming. 

My biggest take-away from the conversations today was this: Farmers are concerned with being good stewards of the land.  Regardless of what motivates this priority, it was very evident that farmers are invested in practicing environmental stewardship and environmental sustainability.  This was evident in the fact that we took time out of our usual schedules to participate, and evident in the content of the conversations.

Water management has a huge impact on soil health, and naturally, soil health is a large factor in determining crop health.  Therefore, farmers make time to learn and navigate the laws and regulations, obtain permits and complete paperwork.  This also means investing in conversations with neighbours and spending money on infrastructure, in order to improve soil health.  Solution-oriented, peer-to-peer conversations help each of us to reflect on our practices and learn from others.   Although PLS commissioned this focus group to ensure that their vision and services align with farmer needs, the conversations were just as valuable to each of the producers in the room.

I learned about land and water resource management, and of equal benefit was the positive energy and optimism of the conversation.  Spring is in the air and we can’t wait to get started on another crop year.

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.