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Farm Tiling Work Stuck in Deep Freeze

Deep frostline in soil curbs winter, spring tiling activity.

DES MOINES, Iowa -- As though Corn Belt farmers don’t have enough to think about to get ready for this year’s planting season. Add to their lists the dilemma of getting drainage tile work done in time for seeding corn or soybeans.

Mother Nature has used a polar vortex weather phenomenon to deepen the frost line in Midwest farmland, this year, while extending bitter cold and continued snowstorms into the month of March.

Now, weather forecasts are calling for more precipitation and cold temperatures for the next 14 days in the Midwestern states.

Though a bit off-topic, but ironic nonetheless, the musical world this week is remembering the top billboard songs from 1969. This week’s No. 1 song 51 years ago was Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy.” The song’s lyrics, “I’m so dizzy, my head is spinning... Like a whirlpool, it never ends,” may be what farmers are thinking about a winter that won’t end.  

Short Tiling Season

Joel Sandeno, Agri-Tile Inc., says the work season for tiling farm fields has been shortened this winter and doesn’t look good for spring.

Sandeno’s agricultural drainage tile company in central Illinois, was able to do 2½ weeks of tiling in each season of last spring and fall, due to too-wet conditions and just two weeks this winter, due to deep frost lines and deep amounts of snow.

“It’s been a tough winter,” Sandeno says. “I just returned from a tiling industry meeting. A lot of folks from all across the Midwest say their equipment is in the shed.”

Sandeno’s crews have a lot of jobs that were scheduled for last fall that still need to be finished.

Agri-Tile crews are trying to help out southern Illinois farm-customers who have soil with more shallow frost lines.

Ideally, in order to get the fieldwork of tiling started, contractors need 30°F. weather days, combined with some sunshine.

“Some mud on top of the frost works fine,” Sandeno says. “But we have frostlines running as deep as 14 inches. Once the frost set in, following Thanksgiving, the tiling season was shortened.”

Ann Johanns, Iowa State University Extension program specialist, agrees that there will be a tight window this spring to get fields dry enough for tiling.

“I’m in northern Iowa where there is 2 feet of snow on fields. So, with this long winter and possible delayed spring thaw, those farmers that have been waiting for tiling to get done might be saying that they need to get into that field when they can. There will be discussions on whether tiling needs to happen this spring or whether it will have to wait,” Johanns says.

Producers are most likely making those decisions right now, Johanns says. “The decision to make is when we can get into the field, what do we want to do,” she says. “The economic benefits of tiling a field are long term. Therefore, it might be worth it to wait to have it done.”

Sandeno says that farmers are getting smarter about drainage tile. “They don’t want it mudded in. But when we can get rolling, we’ll be on a dead run, seven days a week.”

Hard Freeze, Sudden Thaw

For the Corn Belt’s winter, the last three months have been the fifth wettest ever, and the last six months and last nine months have been the wettest ever recorded, according to data collected by Craig Solberg, Nesvick Trading Group, LLC meteoroligist, tweeted @CraigSolberg.

So, once the soils thaw out, tiling experts worry that fields will remain too wet to work in.

With most of the Midwest soil moisture levels at normal to above-normal levels, farmers may see first-hand the battle they have with spring flooding in their fields and trying to control that water.

Good News

Interestingly enough, frost is a blessing for farmers, Sandeno says.

“Deep frost loosens soils and fixes compaction problems. So, farmers should be happy about this year’s deep frost,” Sandeno says.

Tile Pipe Costs Drop

Jennifer Furkin, vice president of operations at Springfield Plastics, Inc., says that because of prices for raw materials to make tile pipe, farmers may be able to tile their fields at more economical costs.

Furkin’s central Illinois company makes tile pipe and sells it to contractors.

“The price of pipe is directly related to the price of the raw materials needed to make plastic resin, from a manufacturer’s perspective,” Furkin says.

One of the main raw materials for making plastic, resin-based tile pipe is natural gas.

“Those prices are low, due to the increased capacity of natural gas in the United States. Therefore, the current tile pipe pricing is some of the lowest that we’ve seen in seven years,” Furkin says.

Will that lower pricing be passed onto the farmer who chooses to tile his or her field is yet to be seen, she says.

“In terms of everyday pricing of tiling from the contractor to the farmer, it varies on the contractor’s operation and what they are offering to the farmer. Some of the projects may be large and some small. So, pricing fluctuates based on equipment offering and territory,” Furkin says.

Deciding to Tile in Weak Economy

The weak economics of farming have a lot to do with tiling activity, Furkin says.

“With the ag economy in a wait-and-see mode, farmers are not sure whether to be optimistic or pessimistic – we’ve seen that over the past few years. We still have to compete in that market along with the equipment companies and everybody else in the ag market.”

Furkin adds, “So, we see farmers that are not sure about the future and maybe want to wait to pull the trigger on investments (such as drainage tile).”

“In the past, people use $900 to $1,000 per acre for the cost of tiling. It depends a lot on what tile pattern and tile pipe sizes that are used,” she says. 

Springfield Plastics, Inc., serves multiple states making it hard to compare today’s tiling prices.

“Some contractors include the charge for the pipe-connecting pieces, while others price those supplies differently. Some contractors charge differently for dirt work. Plow costs vs. trenching costs for burying tile vary,” Furkin says.

Furkin adds, “In some states, we supply piping for a job that involves installing a 36-inch main with lateral pipes all throughout. Other projects might be terrace systems that present their own challenges.”

Kelvin Leibold, Iowa State University Extension specialist agrees that the cost of tiling also depends on soil types, current prices, etc.

“For those who have already made the commitment to tile, it will be a balancing act this spring on what is feasible,” Leibold stated in an emailed response.

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