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Tiling Adds Value to Rental Land

Lee Thelen feels so strongly about the benefits of tiling, he’s willing to tile his neighbors’ land – at least the ones he rents from. Instead of expanding by renting or buying more land, his goal is to make the land he farms more productive. Owning a tile plow makes it feasible for the St. Johns, Michigan, farmer to negotiate with a landlord to improve the land with tile, which benefits both parties.

Negotiating and planning

Thelen has scheduled tiling on landlords’ acreages through 2015. “I laid all the groundwork in the fall when I paid rents,” Thelen says. The plans are in written contracts.

Negotiations vary from farm to farm. For example, one farmer landowner pays for the tile; Thelen provides the labor and agrees to pay comparable rent. On another farm, Thelen covers the cost of the tile and rent; the landowner freezes the rental rate for 10 years.

“I’m going to do the worst spots of every farm, and that way I’ll take the lowest 10% (production) and take it up to the upper 10%. Then, I’ll go back and take the new lowest 10%. Next thing I know, I won’t have any low production,” Thelen says.

He wins with improved yields, and the landowners win with higher valued property. “It doesn’t cost a whole lot of money. It’s a very fair exchange, and it makes for a good landlord/tenant relationship,” Thelen says.

Making thrifty choices
Thelen saved money by choosing midtechnology equipment: tile plows that use lasers. Cost for the plow, laser, and tile cart came to about $25,000, and all the equipment works well with the tractors he had with autosteer. It requires more measuring, math, planning, and paying attention to detail than more expensive ($50,000) systems that use software and require RTK-equipped tractors.

“I didn’t buy RTK so I could spend more on tile,” Thelen explains. “It takes time, but I like it because I find it interesting. This is just a change of pace, and the impact is immediate.”

He plants wheat on acres he plans to tile because it is usually dry after harvest, and he has time to tile in late-July or early August. To minimize disturbing his no-till fields, he chisel-plows the ground over the tile line that is 12 feet wide. He uses a 400-hp. tractor and prerips before laying the first row of tile as a dry run to figure out the depths and route. 

After tiling, he has experimented with different approaches to restoring the field. One technique that worked well was running a field cultivator over the disturbed ground to heal the field, seeding oats for a cover crop, and incorporating the seed with a vertical-tillage tool between the tile rows.

Penciling it out
Thelen farms 1,900 acres and has seen the benefits of no-till farming. With soils ranging from clay to water sand, he recognizes that tiling is the next level for land improvements.

“Tile will make me money because it will increase average crops to higher yield. It makes a big difference on my plant stand and my plant health if the roots aren’t wallowing in the water,” he says. “It makes a huge difference in my timing when I plant. I can get out there sooner.”

Owning tile plows has become more common in his area in recent years, Thelen says, since farmers have had money to spend with higher commodity prices and good harvests. Owning equipment reduces the overall cost and allows farmers to tile small areas that tiling contractors aren’t interested in doing.

“By owning my own plow, I get $50,000 worth of value for a $30,000 investment,” Thelen says, figuring about $500 an acre for the cost of tile, equipment use, and his labor. Hiring a tiling company averages $700 an acre.

Thelen purchased a Liebrecht tile plow in 2011; he budgets $30,000 for tiling about 100 acres annually.

“I tiled in 140,000 feet over two summers, and my equipment owes me nothing,” he says.

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