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Farmers eyeing tile drainage after recent wet seasons

FARGO, N.D. -- After suffering nearly two decades of wet fields and reduced yields, a growing number of area farmers are finding tile drainage more attractive.

Tile drainage was among the topics at the Northwest Farm Managers Association's annual meeting recently in Fargo, N.D. About 200 people attended.

"There's more interest in tile drainage, that's for sure," said Mark Ekre, a Hawley farmer and the association president.

Tile drainage involves installing underground pipes in fields to regulate subsurface water and help plant roots develop properly.

Short lengths of clay pipes known as tiles were used originally. Plastic tubing with small perforations are used now.

Excess subsurface moisture slowly flows into the tubing and is taken to a ditch or other outlet.

The practice is not thought to contribute to spring flooding, according to information from the University of Minnesota Extension.

Tile drainage is still rare in the Red River Valley, in part because many farmers traditionally felt that "it's too flat here," said Hans Kandel, a North Dakota State University agronomist.

But improving technology and the area's wet cycle that began in the early 1990s is causing more farmers to investigate the practice, he said.

Studies show that tile drainage improves yields, particularly in wet years, he said.

There are other benefits, too, such as reducing fuel use, he said.

Tiling costs about $300 to $600 per acre in the area, said Scot Manthe, senior loan officer with AgCountry Farm Credit Services, which provides credit and financial services to area farmers.

Farmers struggling with excess moisture should consider alternatives to tile drainage, said Hal Weiser, with the Jamestown, N.D., office of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

For example, farmers could plant alfalfa, which typically is fed to livestock.

Because alfalfa is a perennial plant, or one that lives more than two years, it grows throughout the entire growing season.

As a result, alfalfa can reduce excess water by drawing on moisture early and late in the growing season when annual crops such as wheat and soybeans cannot, Weiser said.

Jonathan Knutson is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.