Irrigation and Drain Tile 101

You can never have too much of a good thing… unless you are talking about water.  Plants like to grow in a mixture of air, water and soil. If water makes up about 25% of the mix, then plants are happy, but plants become stressed as water levels rise above or fall below this threshold.

Farmers can use irrigation and drain tile to work with Mother Nature to provide a good growing environment.

Watch this quick video from AgPhD to get an overview of how tile drain works - for farmers and the environment.

Irrigation

  • Used to introduce water to the crops/soil

  • Can be used to fertilize crops (fertigate)

  • Can be above ground or below ground (subsurface)

  • Uses technology to design the most efficient coverage configuration

  • Can use smarter irrigation technology to work with Mother Nature to provide just the right amount of moisture, at the exact right times, for each crop type

Drain Tile

  • Used to remove excess water from the soil, to keep the water level below the level of the tile (generally a minimum of 3 feet below the surface)

  • Uses technology to design the most efficient depth, pattern and outlet locations

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.