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Drainage tile a hot commodity this fall

A year ago, early November was all about harvest. October was wet and cool, forcing farmers to hold off on running the combine until later on in the fall, creating a time squeeze that lasted well into 2010.

This year's been a different story. Most combines are in the shed for the winter, leaving farmers with ample time to get other fieldwork done. And, for one input sector, it's creating a squeeze of a whole different type.

Drainage tile doesn't garner the attention that other more technologically advanced tools do on farms these days. But, 2010 has proven its mettle to many farmers in the parts of the Midwest where excess moisture was an issue. Now, those farmers who saw yields rebound because of improved drainage want to build on those conditions, and that's putting a lot of pressure on the manufacturers and installers of drainage tile around the Corn Belt.

"We've been in this business about 25 years, and this is the first time I've ever seen that we cannot get product. We are on hold right now," says Rob Hoyt with Controlled Drainage Systems, Inc., in Scranton, Iowa.

Hoyt says tile installation began in early September this fall. That's the earliest they've started, and they "haven't stopped" since then, covering around 300 acres. "This has been our best fall yet in terms of demand. Farmers are really looking for an avenue to invest their earnings, and tiling's a good exmample of that," Hoyt adds. "I've seen a lot of guys improving their existing acres instead of buying more."

Stewart Ohrtman does just that. In fact, the Ringsted, Iowa, farmer installs at least some new contour tile lines each year when time allows. Ohrtman's a technology-savvy farmer; he uses a lot of the latest precision ag tools. But, he says with excess moisture being the hallmark of his 2010 crop year, the highest technology has been trumped by good drainage in terms of its effect on yields.

"What's the limiting factor? A lot of the time, it can be being too wet and a lack of tile. If we have high nutritional value in that soil but yields are low, we can guarantee that it's a lack of tile," Ohrtman says.

And, it pays. Hoyt says he's talked to customers who have gleaned a full return on investment in less than 2 years after installing new tile lines, more than 2 years before they expected that to happen. That's because in some cases, good drainage causes a significant yield bump, Ohrtman says.

"We have seen direct results. I have a neighbor who pattern tiled a whole quarter-section, and this year when I combined his beans, he felt he'd gained 20 bushels/acre," he says. "Even at $10 beans, that pays for a lot of that tile expense."

Hoyt says for those customers who are installing tile lines on ground for the first time, some are seeing yield improvements of 30 to 40 bushels/acre.

Tile supplies look to remain tight through the rest of fall and into the winter. Hoyt says his company's supplier has a waiting list just over 3 weeks long. But, his farmer customers have thus far been "really good about it," with most willing to wait until spring before conducting some tillage and fieldwork until drainage tile can get installed. The good news is Mother Nature should continue to cooperate, Hoyt says, allowing him to continue installing new tile until mid-December, a week or so later than usual.

"We'll probably buy all the product we can get just as a safety precaution," he says.


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