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Tile it yourself (or not)

New research aims to uncover the accuracy and value of tile plows.

Dan Hughes knows that all tile plows are not created equal. Facing a two-year wait for commercial tile installation, in 1997 the Danvers, MN, farmer purchased a frame-mounted tile plow with laser grade control. "The plow dolphined [moved up and down] and didn't meet grade tolerance levels," Hughes says. A year later, he returned that plow and purchased a different brand that performed well for him.

Like Hughes, many farmers are opting to install tile themselves by purchasing pull-behind drainage plows that they can run with their existing tractors. However, until this year, no independent research had been conducted in the U.S. to evaluate how well these machines can do the job.

"We were getting questions from contractors, farmers and landowners about the installation performance quality of pull-behind plows, but we were in no position to offer a proper assessment," says Larry Brown, associate professor of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Ohio State University.

Independent test. This summer Ohio State University initiated field evaluations of several pull-behind drainage plows at sites throughout the state. Researchers use a video camera and a GeoStar Mast system to collect data on drainage tubing installation depth and grade accuracy independent of the laser grade control system on the tile machines. The tests, conducted with experienced operators, will continue over the next 15 months. As many as seven different drainage plows will be evaluated.

According to the American Society of Agricultural Engineers' standards, the maximum allowable variation in grade is 1/10 ft. for the installation of corrugated plastic tubing. "Of course we would like to see installation variations much less than the maximum allowable," Brown says.

At a site in Wooster, OH, the researchers tested two tile plows: the Liebrecht and the Soil Max Gold Digger. The Wooster site represented near ideal installation conditions. Results of this test will be available later this fall.

Denny Bell, president of Soil Max, says, "This is a new market segment, and people want some independent research on these machines. We're participating in the studies because we think it will give us credibility."

Liebrecht Manufacturing's reasons are the same. "We think there is quite a difference in the ability of these plows to hold grade and we think our machine design will prove itself," owner Junior Liebrecht says.

Brown adds, "We're developing a type of challenge course with extreme soil and topographic variations to help determine the possible limitations of each type of plow. Our overall goal is to provide a research-based assessment of the performance capabilities of some of these plows and help operators do a better job." The university also is developing a computer simulation model.

In addition to the Ohio State University research, the National Land Improvement Contractors Association (LICA) is trying to define and establish testing standards for all drainage machines, according to Leonard Binstock, executive director of Minnesota's LICA. The organization also is debating certification of contractors.

Will a purchase pay off? The university research should help a farmer assess his operation and decide if purchasing a tile plow is his best option.

After purchasing his second plow, grower Hughes found he didn't have the time to design, manage and install tile. "We have a large and diverse farming operation," he explains. "In reality we didn't have enough time to install the 50,000 to 75,000 ft. of tile we wanted done each year. And we needed to install at least 50,000 ft. in order to realize any significant cost savings. When I started analyzing the management time for tile layout and design and the overhead equipment costs, I found I wasn't saving money. Plus I still needed contractors for the larger pipe on water mains."

He ultimately sold the machine and struck on a creative solution to attract an experienced commercial contractor to his area. He got 10 neighboring farmers and landlords to pool their tiling requests and developed a pre-design package for contractors to bid on. As a result, a commercial contractor installed 137,000 ft. of tile in 1999 and 30,000 ft. this year and will install 100,000 ft. next year for the pool.

Ohio no-till farmer Alan Thompson says he likes to plow in tile instead of chisel plowing in the fall. "We have a large farm with several employees and this allows us to use our labor and equipment over more days," he says. He estimates that his fuel, labor and repair costs are half what a commercial contractor would charge him for installation. He is installing about 75,000 ft. of tile each year with his Liebrecht tile plow.

Satisfied owners. Soil Max surveyed 90 of its tile plow owners and claims that all 60 of the respondents said they would purchase another Gold Digger. "Our survey showed Gold Digger owners are installing 126,000 ft. of drainage tile/year on average and saving $45,000/year in installation costs," says Soil Max's Bell. "Many farmers have the machinery and the intelligence to tile their own ground for about one-third the cost of commercial installation with the same or better quality than some contractors."

Thompson welcomes any research that evaluates the tile plows and installation methods. He says, "Doing a good job requires time and mathematical ability to develop a plan, figure the grade and correctly use the laser. You want to do it right, because you want it to last 50 years or more."

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