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Irrigating with tile

The screen of an iPad shows graphics that are used by Ellingson Drainage clients in a new system that allows remote monitoring and programming of field drainage systems. Agweek photo by Mikkel Pates.

FARGO, N.D. -- In a dry year, some farmers in the region are designing sub-surface tile drainage systems to use as sub-surface irrigation, and some soon will be able to control and monitor their pumps from smart phones and other computers.

Control-drainage is becoming a bigger issue, says Max Fuxa, sales manager for the Ellingson Drainage location in Harwood, N.D. Some farmers are using systems to irrigate crops.

Fuxa cites three things that can be done with tile systems: conventional drainage; control-drainage, by adding control structures; and sub-surface irrigation, where a water source is used in conjunction with the control structures.

In a normal, wetter spring, farmers will start in a drainage mode, Fuxa says. "They are wanting to get excess water removed from their soil, so they can get out there, get that field planted early, and get that yield increase due to early planting," Fuxa says.

In control-drainage practice, Ellingson adds Agri Drain Corp. structures that include boards for changing water levels. Fuxa emphasizes that a control drainage system has to be designed differently than a conventional drainage system -- perhaps flatter grades, different main designs, he says. "It has to be designed for control-drainage to do control-drainage." The control structures come up to 24 inches in diameter. They're buried so that 2 feet of the system stick out of the ground, usually at the edge of the field.

"Once the crop is seeded, the crop starts to come up and you can put these boards or 'stoplogs' down, building up the water table in your field. As the roots grow down, you pull these boards out of the control structure, lowering the water table as your roots go down.

"In July, you feel it's going to be dry, you put these boards back in again," he says. "And it'll build the water table back up to your roots. There are studies that show that using a control structure can definitely increase your yields when you get a wet spring and we're dry in the summer."

The board-style control structure is above-ground at the edge of the field and builds water levels up to an in-line structure that is buried at the tile level. The floats in the in-line system rise and close the water behind it. The advantage is that the in-line system is buried, so the farmer doesn't have to avoid it while farming. An 8-inch diameter in-line system handles 20 acres, Fuxa says.

Fuxa says Ellingson has projects south of Fairmont, N.D., and near Grafton, N.D., that have access to water sources and use the systems for sub-surface irrigation, with apparent yield responses in sugar beets and other crops.

Remote monitoring

Meanwhile, Kyle Hall, shop manager in pump sales for Ellingson Drainage is just beginning to offer remote monitoring of pumps in October. "Guys can see if their pumps are running, or how long they've been running for, or if they've faulted out or if there are any problems with them," Hall says. "This way, they don't have to drive around to all of their spots and check them."

It costs $2,500 to add this to an existing drainage pump system. It includes installation and one year of cell phone coverage, which runs about $400 to $450 a year. Each lift station must have its own cell phone. Hall says about 10 of the systems are pre-sold, and will be installed this fall.

The computer system is run off of cell phones, which talk to the farmer's Vacon brand variable frequency drive, which controls the motor. "If the motor has any faults, it'll email or text you on your phone," Hall says." It's all 'cloud-based' software so you don't have to buy any software. Anywhere you can get an internet connection from your cell phone or personal computer, you can control your pump and monitor it."

Normally, farmers do visual sight-based monitoring. After a large rainfall, farmers go out and check the pump, possibly several times, depending on the distance and access.

Also, Hall has remote access to each lift station. If needed, he can access the systems, so he can diagnose problems and reprogram them remotely, rather than going to the site. Similar systems have been used for monitoring golf course watering systems, but not for farm drainage until now, as far as Hall knows.