Talking tiling

Brian Hefty is co-host of the TV show “Ag PhD”; a Baltic, S.D., farmer; and a seed and chemical retailer. He’s also an advocate for tiling and has spoken to several farm groups in the Dakotas this summer about tiling. He also recently made a presentation to a South Dakota legislative committee. He provided the following answers to these emailed questions:

Key Points

Tiling advocate says proper cropland drainage is critical.

Tiling would improve yields, profits and tax revenues.

Tile makes a big difference in prevented planting acreage.

Q: Why are you advocating for tiling?

This year, the Baltic School that my three kids attend had to cut two teachers due to funding cuts from the state of South Dakota. Last year in South Dakota, there were almost 2 million acres of prevented planting, and in my estimation, another 5 million acres that were significantly hurt by excess moisture. In addition to that, there was tremendous road, property and infrastructure damage caused by the excess moisture. Conservatively, that cost our state more than $1 billion (what it really cost our state, in my estimation, was $2 billion to $3 billion).

Even at $1 billion, if that extra money was made and then turned seven times in our economy, as economists talk about, in my estimation that could have been $50 million to $100 million more tax revenue for the state. That would have covered a big chunk of the budget shortfall. And if we had a good drainage plan, our infrastructure, roads, etc., wouldn’t have needed all the repairs they did this year and that would have covered a bunch more.

It’s sad when one of our state’s most valuable resources, farmland, gets neglected — and even abandoned for a year in some cases. When tile is installed correctly, it will solve most drainage problems. We’ve seen it on our own farm, as we’ve been installing tile on our farmland for several years now. Flooding is reduced; erosion is reduced; downstream water quality is considerably better; yields increase; and more money is generated for us, our community and our state.

Sadly, though, most people don’t know about tiling and how it can help, so they simply assume it’s bad. That’s why I feel I need to get involved. There are too many nonfarmers who try to spread mistruths about tiling, farmers, and how we impact the water quality and water quantity in our country, and I can’t sit idly by and watch. I personally live on a farm and drink well water every day. No one has more at stake than those of us who live in rural America.

Q: You compare Brown County, S.D., to Humboldt County, Iowa, to make the case for tiling. What’s the story?

In 2010 in Brown County, S.D., there were approximately 318,000 acres of prevented planting. My dad is from Humboldt County, Iowa, originally. Last year Humboldt County from April to October had almost double the amount of rain that Brown County did. Humboldt County ground is heavier than Brown County soils, and in most areas Humboldt’s land is flatter than Brown County’s.

All that said, Humboldt County had 102 acres of prevented planting in 2010. Again, Humboldt County had way more rain on ground that should have poorer drainage, and temperatures during the growing season were fairly similar. The big difference between the two counties is tile. Most farmland in Humboldt County is pattern-tiled, where Brown County has virtually no tile in the entire county.

My point is simply that Brown County’s problems could be solved with a better drainage plan and tile, and it’s the same all across our region. As farmers, we need to invest the money to fix those problems. The payoff is quick, and it benefits everyone.

One last note about Brown County: The James River moves very slowly through the county. While that can restrict drainage to some degree, when you look at U.S. Geological Survey records of water flow in the river, it’s rarely running at full capacity. What tiling does is spread out the time that water flows through the system. In other words, we could keep the water running at a slower rate over more time, and that would be a great thing for a slow-moving river like the James.

Q: What’s the biggest roadblock to tiling?

The Natural Resources Conservation Service is the biggest roadblock right now. Farmers want to improve things, but NRCS is far behind with wetland determinations.

Beyond that, certain counties, like Brown County, seem to be holding farmers back until the county decides what it wants to do with drainage in the whole county. Also, there are some issues from neighbor to neighbor in figuring out the best plan to properly tile and move the water downstream. For the most part, though, farmers aren’t having a lot of issues once they get going with it.

The average wait, from what I’ve heard, varies considerably from county to county in the Dakotas. In some cases, it’s taking two or more years to get NRCS to look at a field and notify the farmer where he can and cannot tile if he wants to remain in the government farm program. On average, it’s probably a one-year wait in South Dakota right now.

Q: You say that farmers must be “persistent and relentless” in their pursuit of tiling. What do you mean?

With many tiling projects in South Dakota, you need to get NRCS approval, highway department approval, a county permit and neighbor approval. Besides that, you need to invest money in a tile plow, a guidance system, a stringer cart, RTK GPS, the tile itself, and the manpower. At the same time, you have nonfarmers telling you that tiling is bad for the environment, which couldn’t be further from the truth. [Tiling] is a process that at minimum will take you one year and possibly as many as three to five years from start to finish. If you’re not persistent and relentless, it’s easy to give up before completion.

As a landowner in the United States, you have the legal right to drain your property of excess moisture. Since that right was given to U.S. citizens years ago, several layers of bureaucracy have slowed the process. Nevertheless, it’s a process that’s certainly manageable. I especially encourage farmers to spend time with their neighbors to make sure everyone understands what tile can and cannot do. More importantly, I ask farmers to work together so every neighbor benefits, not just one.

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UNDERWATER: Cropland that is too wet to plant is a costly problem for the farmer, and ultimately, it costs taxpayers, too.

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TILING PAYOFF: Brian Hefty, Hefty Seed Farm, Baltic, S.D., makes a strong case for tiling. The payoff is quick, he says, and it benefits everyone.


DIGGING IN: A tile plow is used to place tile beneath the soil surface to drain excess soil moisture.

This article published in the November, 2011 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.