New technology has helped simplify the process of do-it-yourself tiling. Ben Fehl and his father Dean and brother Brandt, who farm in La Porte City, IA, purchased their first tile plow last spring, opting for a Soil-Max unit with a GPS-based grade control system called the Intellislope. The system requires RTK, which the Fehls already had. 

“The GPS software does all of the surveying for you,” says Fehl. “Basically you drive down the hill where you are going to tile and it tells you whether or not the parameters you’ve set for minimum tile depth, maximum depth, optimum depth and slope can be met or not based on the line you just drove.  If you can’t do it, you can reset your parameters or alter your plans. The system also maps the tile line as you go.”

The economics of owning a tile plow varies depending on local drainage contractor rates. Duncanson calculated that his operation saves about 50% of installation costs excluding materials. “You can do your own tiling and save some money,” he says. “That’s the real advantage.”

Figure the return-on-investment for a tile plow by multiplying the local contractor’s per-foot rate by the number of feet you expect to tile a day to establish a daily rate savings, or by calculating a per-hour savings using average miles per hour and average cost per foot.

Having equipment and labor for tiling can also work in your favor with landlords, says Fehl. One of his landlords agreed to pay for the tile pipe and extend a longer-term lease in exchange for free installation. Others pay for the tiling services outright. “I can install the tile very cheaply for landlords knowing that I will have the advantage of properly drained fields,” Fehl says.

Tiling also widens the window for fieldwork. “The wet spots are what keep you out of the field,” Fehl says. “The plow lends itself to improving our timeliness of field operations, which is hard to put a dollar figure on – but we know it works to our advantage.”

Owning a tile plow can offer growers a tool to improve productivity in today’s competitive farming environment. “It’s more important to improve farms we have before we farm more acres,” notes Duncanson.