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Do-it-Yourself Tiling | Growers Keep Profits High and Dry

TAGS: Soybeans


Allen Sasse gives a visitor a mid-summer tour of the sprawling, flat fields near his Beason, IL, farmstead. He gestures to brown-footed corn plants and low-lying bald patches in fields as signs of too much water earlier this season.

“This year we had a lot of drowned-out spots, except where the ground is tiled,” says Sasse, who started farming 12 years ago with his father Dean, uncle Dave and cousin Nathan, after earning a master’s degree in crop science at the University of Illinois.

Like many Midwest operations, the Sasse farm has battled heavy rains the past three years. Logan County, where the farm is based, averaged 14 in. of rainfall in June 2009, about 10 in. more than normal.

On one particular farm, “you could see to the line what had been tiled – the half that wasn’t had to later be replanted,” Sasse recalls. Even when weather isn’t as extreme, “our yield maps clearly show better yields where fields are tiled,” he says.

The combination of heavy moisture and a heightened awareness of the importance of adequate subsurface drainage seems to be spawning growing interest in tile plows. Growers like the Sasses, who’ve been plowing tile into their fields for many years, say it simplifies scheduling of drainage improvements, helps reduce tiling costs and can help win points with landlords.

But there are some words of caution to consider before you buy a tile plow.

The Sasses first got into tiling in the mid-1990s when they saw widespread potential for improving productivity by installing or upgrading subsurface drainage systems in their expanding farm operation. Five years ago they purchased a tractor-pulled, Soil-Max Gold Digger ( tile plow, with a laser grade-control system to replace an older, outdated tile plow.

Allen Sasse estimates his family has installed tile in approximately 25% of the ground they farm in Logan, as well as DeWitt and McClean counties. “If time allows we’ll spend upwards of two weeks each year tiling,” says Sasse.

Four Sasse family members or employees work together on tiling projects: one to survey the ground and calculate grade, one to haul the tile stringer wagon and two to operate the twin John Deere 8430 tractors used to pull the plow. The team can lay about 10,000-12,000 ft. of tile a day. 

The Sasses’ flat ground is well suited for parallel pattern configurations with 4-in. lateral tiles across 100-ft. centers, connected to larger, single main lines. If tile has to be set deeper than 6 ft., or if pipe with larger than an 8-in. diameter is needed, the Sasses hire the work done. “We work very closely with the local contractor because there are certain jobs that we can’t do,” says Sasse.

Patrick Duncanson of Mapleton, MN, also relies on local contractors – such as when weather compresses installation opportunities – even though he and his family have installed over 1 million feet of tile. They use a frame-mounted tile plow they purchased in the late 1990s from Wayne’s Tile Pro (

Duncanson says growers should be prepared for a steep learning curve in knowing the more subjective facets of installing drainage tile, such as when topography and soil condition dictate adding a costly protective sock over tile, or how best to hook onto century-old drainage systems.

“Over time we’ve learned things you can and can’t do to save time and costs,” says Duncanson.  “But you can’t underestimate the importance of people and expertise.”

Larry Seiler, a drainage contractor in Davenport, IA, has had to fix problems after farmers inadvertently damaged existing drainage systems with their tile plows. “In our area, a lot of the tile was put in back in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s by hand and there are no tile maps, or the farm may have changed hands and they’ve lost the map,” Seiler says. “What’s underground you don’t see, and oftentimes they plow through the tile without knowing it and then they don’t go back and repair the damage.”

Other problems, according to Seiler, can stem from poor grade control, sometimes due to operating too fast. “Slower is better,” agrees Allen Sasse. “It gives the plow more time to react to the adjustments from the laser.”

New technology simplifies process

New technology has helped simplify the process of do-it-yourself tiling. Ben Fehl and his father Dean and brother Brandt, who farm in La Porte City, IA, purchased their first tile plow last spring, opting for a Soil-Max unit with a GPS-based grade control system called the Intellislope. The system requires RTK, which the Fehls already had. 

“The GPS software does all of the surveying for you,” says Fehl. “Basically you drive down the hill where you are going to tile and it tells you whether or not the parameters you’ve set for minimum tile depth, maximum depth, optimum depth and slope can be met or not based on the line you just drove.  If you can’t do it, you can reset your parameters or alter your plans. The system also maps the tile line as you go.”

The economics of owning a tile plow varies depending on local drainage contractor rates. Duncanson calculated that his operation saves about 50% of installation costs excluding materials. “You can do your own tiling and save some money,” he says. “That’s the real advantage.”

Figure the return-on-investment for a tile plow by multiplying the local contractor’s per-foot rate by the number of feet you expect to tile a day to establish a daily rate savings, or by calculating a per-hour savings using average miles per hour and average cost per foot.

Having equipment and labor for tiling can also work in your favor with landlords, says Fehl. One of his landlords agreed to pay for the tile pipe and extend a longer-term lease in exchange for free installation. Others pay for the tiling services outright. “I can install the tile very cheaply for landlords knowing that I will have the advantage of properly drained fields,” Fehl says.

Tiling also widens the window for fieldwork. “The wet spots are what keep you out of the field,” Fehl says. “The plow lends itself to improving our timeliness of field operations, which is hard to put a dollar figure on – but we know it works to our advantage.”

Owning a tile plow can offer growers a tool to improve productivity in today’s competitive farming environment. “It’s more important to improve farms we have before we farm more acres,” notes Duncanson.  


Think before you tile

Before you begin tiling, Richard Cooke, a University of Illinois ag engineer, offers growers a few pointers:

  • Get training. There is more to designing a drainage system than just going out and saying, “OK, we are going to put tile here, here and here.” Several Midwestern universities offer drainage workshops, and online information, such as the Illinois Drainage Guide:
  • Surveyeach fieldtopographically. Cooke says yield-monitoring systems with RTK are equipped to gather topographical information. The survey should include critical features such as pipelines, fences, towers, etc. “Nothing should take you by surprise when you are inthe field tiling.”
  • If you are usea laser, check the calibration at every setup to avoid surveying errors. 
  • Avoid the temptation to laytile from upstream to downstream. “It’s easier to make corrections if you’rerunning up the slope,” says Cooke. 
  • Go slowly. Give the machine time to adjust to any corrections the laser or grade monitor indicates. 
  • Learn and respect the limits of the machine. Understand your maximum tiling depth and tile-pipe size range and other variables. “For example, don’t try to force the machine to go deeper than its limit,” Cooke says. 
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