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A View of Drainage Costs

What will it cost? This is always the first question a farmer asks a drainage contractor invited to look at land on which drainage improvement is being considered. The contractor dodges this direct question, which he will answer later, by asking questions that might affect that cost. It could be $400 to $800 per acre, more or less.

Contractor wants to know how much work you plan to do. They have a fixed cost in moving all their equipment to your job. When they can spread this over more feet on larger jobs, the unit cost is usually less. Some contractors have higher costs due to the number of pieces of equipment they bring to your job.

Next, contractors usually ask these questions: When do you want to do it? What time of year? What’s on the field? Contractors have a high demand for their services in the spring and fall. Try to schedule your plantings so drains are installed in wheat stubble, pasture, or a crop that will not interfere with the draining operations.

Contractors have an off-season or dead period in early summer and will look with financial kindness on doing your job at that time. It could help them avoid laying off workers until activity picks up later in the year. Remember though, with the best of intentions, plans sometimes have to be changed. The weather can cause delays for both parties. Work may have to be rescheduled, even to the following year later in some situations.

Tradition has a powerful influence on drainage design and cost. Farmers prefer methods they have seen work successfully. Drainage is considered a long-term investment, so they "go for the best". In practice "the best" usually means traditional drain spacing for the neighbourhood. When in doubt, they usually err on the side of closer drain spacing.

Spacing between lateral drains greatly affects the cost. It also has a major influence on how fast the system responds to wet conditions. A licensed LICO contractor interested in your job usually has experience in your area. He has the Drainage Guide for Ontario which gives average drain spacing for your soil type. You should know if a neighbour is satisfied with the drain spacing he or she used. It is false economy to shave drain spacing. If the spacing you choose is too wide, you may have to split it. Your cost per unit area ends up higher than if you’d done it right the first time.

In rolling land, a random system of drains is used to dry up low areas and pick up side-hill seeps and similar problems. Farmers practicing no-till cultivation need closer drain spacing than was customary in the past. LICO contractors are very knowledgeable in tile layout design.

Another important question: Where is the outlet, and is it any good? If you have a good natural watercourse on your property you are very fortunate. In some localities, you have to get approval to use the outlet. Your LICO contractor can give you guidance on this matter. Things can get complicated.

If the outlet is an open municipal drain, have you paid toward its maintenance? If it is a closed municipal tile drain is there enough capacity left for your water? The township drainage superintendent can help you out. If the outlet is off your property, the contractor will ask you how you get on with the neighbour and whether there is a need for some form of an agreement.

The contractor will ask you what size of main drain you want to install to an outlet - for example, 12-inch corrugated plastic tubing vs. 10-inch concrete pipe for the equivalent water discharge. It costs more to install larger pipe. You and the contractor need to discuss the merits of this option. Don’t be persuaded to accept a large number of smaller outlets as an equivalent. Remember you’re the person who has to maintain them for the rest of your life on the farm.

Tile type is not a hot topic of debate today. Corrugated plastic drainage tubing has most of the market. Clay drain tile is still available and some prefer to use it when they are repairing systems, adding small areas to a clay tile system, or live in an area where people still believe in the merits of clay drain tile. It may cost a bit more for a contractor to install clay tile as the work load is higher and the pace slower.

Should you farm on sandy soil, you may need a filter sock on the drainage tubing. This adds about 11 a foot to the cost. The sock protects your investment from filling up with sand.

Rocky soil and boggy ground slow the work, so costs can skyrocket. Contractors may want to work at an hourly rate when soil conditions could slow the operation unpredictably. Utilities are a hazard and those companies need to be informed about any work being done. They want lots of notice. Another question to settle: Who takes down and replaces the fences?

The contractor will probably do a ‘skinny’ survey of the area you propose to drain before giving you a price for the job. The purpose of the survey, done at no cost to the customer, is to be sure there is an outlet for most of the land and to determine the actual area. Once contractors have been given the job he will then do an elaborate survey to determine the drain grades and where the drain lines are to be located. When the job is done, they should leave you a map or photograph of the system for future reference.

When you buy a tractor, you buy it partly on trust. Drainage is no different; you and your contractor must trust each other. Remember; a professional job that leaves both sides happy is in both your interests.

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Ross W. Irwin, Executive Director
Land Improvement Contractors of Ontario

Country Guide, March 1998, P 33-34

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