Contractor at Work

 Boes Quality Drainage is a progressive company that is big on innovation. Innovation at work

When Fostoria, Ohio, farmer Lanny Boes purchased his first ditch machine 40 years ago, he had no idea it would lead to him starting a drainage contracting company.“My first farm was really wet and needed tile in a bad way,” explains Boes. “I bought a ditch machine to do the job myself and that project ended up catching the attention of a couple of neighbors.”Boes says he really enjoyed tiling his farm, and good thing too because one neighbor referral kept leading to another. In fact, Boes became so busy helping his neighbors that he decided to hire an employee and start Boes Quality Drainage.Four decades later, he’s busier than ever. Boes now works with his youngest son, Corey, and two other employees. He keeps his equipment fleet small. On the tiling side, the fleet consists of only a Wolfe 250 drainage plow, a New Holland B95B backhoe and a Buckeye Super H wheel machine. As the elder Boes says, his company tries to do everything as efficiently – and as simply – as possible so there isn’t a lot of equipment hanging around.His son Corey agrees. “When some companies arrive to tile, they show up with a couple of stringers, a plow, a ditch machine, a backhoe and a bunch of other equipment,” explains Corey. “The thing is, we’re called in to make the fields drain better. We know soil compaction is an enemy to drainage, and poor drainage causes lower crop yields. So, we minimize our footprint in the field by using less equipment more efficiently.”The younger Boes says another example of how the company tries to minimize soil compaction is by using an onboard reel when they’re working in the field. By using the onboard reel, the drainage plow is the only piece of equipment that drives across the field for each tile line, as opposed to having an additional piece of equipment pulling a tile stringer for every tile line. With this method, Corey explains, the backhoe only has to drive out across the field when it’s time to replace the reel. “It doesn’t seem to matter how much tile you have in the ground,” says Corey. “If the water can’t get to the tile, the tile can’t be utilized as much as they should be. [Driving less equipment across the field] really makes a difference, especially in the spring and fall when the ground tends to be softer.”Driving innovationBoes Quality Drainage is a progressive company that is big on innovation. As an example, the Boes family developed a patented steel trench box that removes the need for stone when installing large tile. This saves their clients both the money that would typically be spent on the stone, and the labor costs associated with handling the stone.“When you install large diameter tile, you typically dig the trench to grade, put a little bedding of stone down, drop the tile in, and then surround the tile with stone,” explains Corey. “But with our patented steel trench box, we eliminate the cost of the stone, making the job more economical for the land owner.” As Corey says, there are no downsides to using the steel trench box in place of stone. Rather, when you consider the cost savings and the added safety bonus that working within the structure of a steel trench box provides, it’s an easy sell for both him and his clients.Corey, whom his father describes as the family electronics expert, has also designed an electronic sensor system for the backhoe that can tell the operator how deep the tile should be. Corey says the system is so accurate the operator can dig down to within a 1/10-inch of the tile without having to probe it.New plow designThe Boes family and Wolfe Heavy Equipment are also working together to design a new plow that will attach as a fifth-wheel and won’t need a lowboy semi-trailer to haul it. The inspiration comes from the cost and frustration of obtaining a special overweight haul permit to move heavy plows along state highways. As Corey says, the cost of the permit, which in Ohio is over $100, adds up throughout the year, and it’s extremely frustrating to drive a route of travel that is dictated by the state but is often not direct, making it take longer to get to the customer’s site.In Corey’s words, the dealer jumped all over the concept when his family proposed the idea of a fifth-wheel plow back in the spring. “This is probably the first plow that has turn signals and lights on it,” says Corey, laughing. “Really, it’s a great idea that solves a lot of problems, and the dealer has told me they have another half-dozen or so other customers who want to purchase one.”Moving forwardCorey says his passion for innovation and technology was instilled by his dad, Lanny, at a very young age. People sometimes shy away from technology but he was always brought up to believe that if technology can be used to benefit you or the customer, you should go for it.The elder Boes looks back fondly over his company’s 40-year history, noting how much easier the job has become thanks to technology. He notes that 40 years ago the technology was grade stakes and an old ditch machine that did about 15-feet per minute. Today his plow is equipped with a GPS system and runs at 120-feet per minute. Lanny, who has Corey and two other sons, says he’s at the point where he’s considering reducing his involvement in the business and passing more of the responsibility for the business down to his sons.“I’ve been really lucky over the years,” says Lanny. “I have good customers and a great family with a supportive wife. Maybe it’s time for me to start winding down a bit.”

Setting standards

Since the mid-1970s, the province of Ontario has had a plow testing and certification program and is currently updating the program. With the significant increase in plow-installed subsurface drainage over the last several years in both the U.S. and Canada, it seems that it is time that a drainage plow testing and certification program be considered for development in the United States. Corrugated plastic (HDPE) subsurface drain tubing installed with plow-type equipment has increased dramatically since the early 1970s, in both Canada and the United States. All of the early drainage plows were equipped with laser-based automatic depth and grade-control systems. Older systems have now been upgraded on many plows, and some trenchers, with the modern satellite-based 3-D GPS depth and grade-control system. More recently, innovative designs for self-contained drainage plows have become available and their acceptance by contractors has significantly increased in the U.S. and Canada. Most of the modern plows are very powerful and capable of operating at greater depths, and can install drainage pipe faster than earlier plows. However, current regulations in Canada do not set limits on the maximum speed the plows should be operated at in order to ensure drain tubes are installed accurately at design depth and grade. Although the U.S. has current subsurface drainage design and installation specifications and standards though the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, there are no drainage plow performance regulations in place in the U.S.Ontario’s program is based on specifications and standards stated in the Agricultural Tile Drainage Installation Act originally passed in 1973. The act includes a provision for training and licensing of drainage contractors that is administered by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Ministry of Rural Affairs. A similar testing and certification program is not available in the United States.  The advanced features provided by the GPS-RTK systems, including automatic steering of the plow or trencher, should be considered and included in the plow-testing standard. The GPS-RTK system now available may allow higher ground speeds with modern plows, if the machine hydraulics responds quickly enough to the control system feedback signals at the higher speeds to maintain design drain depth and grade. Mounting a second satellite GPS-RTK receiver directly above the drainage tube feeder boot attached to the plow blade may provide the enhanced accuracy needed to establish guidelines for a plow-testing program. The second receiver would monitor and record the GPS co-ordinates (X, Y, and Z-h, where “h” is the height at which the second receiver is mounted above the bottom of the tube feeder boot) at the bottom of the drain tube as it emerges from the tube feeder boot and is installed in the soil channel created by the plow. The co-ordinate data recorded by the second receiver would more accurately define the final X, Y, and Z-h locations along the line of the installed drain tube than a recording of co-ordinates from the controlling receiver mounted on a forward reaching cantilever arm attached to the plow blade. For advanced drainage plows, the Z-h data versus ground travel could be displayed graphically to the plow operator, along with other performance information.Without regulated programs, it is the contractor’s responsibility to find solutions ensuring accuracy and quality of installation.

Industry News

Will Water Works case reach the U.S. Supreme Court?

Sept. 3, 2015, Des Moines, IA – About 100 million acres of tile drained farmland in the U.S. will be affected by the ultimate decision of a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works board of directors against three counties’ drainage districts and their directors. Ag Professional reports. | READ MORE

New rules for drainage projects in SK

Sept. 2, 2015, Regina – New regulations for agricultural drainage projects are being implemented to reduce their impact on downstream landowners in Saskatchewan. The Regina Leader-Post reports. | READ MORE

Drainage Management Systems

The Supertrencher+ 760 carries out fairway drainage. Draining fairways

Few soils will drain fast enough to allow golf to be played in comfort after a period of prolonged rain, but effective drainage techniques can make a huge difference to the speed at which water will drain away. Here are seven steps for successful fairway drainage that will keep costs down.1. Tile depthThe size and correct positioning of the tile is vital, as it has the job of drawing the moisture elsewhere. Many golf courses are built on clay soils, which are almost impermeable to moisture, so excess water will simply sit on top of it. For best results lateral tiles should be approximately 19 inches deep and main drains should be about 23 inches deep. Installing tiles even seven to 11 inches deeper can be a waste of money. Drains placed too close to the surface can be damaged by future surface aeration operations.2. Tile layoutThe “flag layout” gives the best results for fairway drainage, as the main drain runs down the side of the fairway – possibly in the rough – and the junctions are clear of the closely mown areas. This method gives better results than the traditional “herringbone layout” where water is taken to the centre of the fairway, where most golfers will be playing. 3. Tile spacingCost is generally the major factor when deciding how far apart to place lateral drains, but a spacing of 32 feet would be considered the maximum, while 22 feet or 16 feet are preferable spacings on the wetter parts of the course. Spacing can be wider if a secondary drainage system is superimposed over the tile system.4. Tile sizeSize is important, but bigger isn’t better when it comes to land drainage. Plastic land drainage tiles have small slits cut into them so the water can flow into the tile – as this happens, it takes fine soil particles with it. Where there is a good flow of water, these particles are flushed away. This can be helped by using a smaller tile of one, two or three inches in diameter. In larger tiles, where water flow is more sluggish, the soil particles will simply sit in the bottom and create a build up, reducing effectiveness.5. Trench sizeThe most cost-effective technique is to cut a trench that is slightly wider than the diameter of the pipe. The forces in the soil will close the trench walls 0.5 to 0.75 inches soon after digging, allowing the tile to fit snugly in the trench. Many modern sportsturf trenching machines work on the same principles as a large circular saw, cutting trenches with considerable precision. Paying close attention to the size of the trench can result in a big cost saving as less aggregate is required to backfill the trench.6. FallIt may sound obvious that water doesn’t flow uphill, but all your good work can go to waste if tiles do not have adequate fall on them, allowing the water to run away. Specialist contractors use laser-guided machines to ensure tiles are installed at greater depths through mounds and ridges.7. TimingThe best advice has got to be to, “plan the work when it’s wet and do it when it’s dry.” Working in wet soils creates damage to the soil structure, but waiting until things dry up a bit means drainage work can be carried out speedily, so there is minimal disruption and greater recovery.On heavy soil or courses in wetter areas, a secondary system may need to be installed for the best results, but a well-installed primary tile system is a cost-effective first step and can achieve great results. DCShelton Sportsturf Drainage Ltd is a global business based near Horncastle in Lincolnshire, England. Shelton designs and manufactures specialist drainage machinery engineered with sportsturf in mind, leaving minimal impact on grass so it can get back in play within 24 hours of work being completed. For more information contact

Waterlogging and drainage

The importance of good water management is sometimes lost in the busy world of farming. As an Australian Nuffield Scholar, travelling to the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, the United States and Canada to gain knowledge on ways to reduce waterlogging, I soon realized the importance of looking at multiple ways to combat this issue.My study topic is finding ways to reduce waterlogging in high value cropping programs. Controlling water from rainfall and irrigation is an important part of any modern farming business. Crop stress, either by being too dry or too wet, limits plant growth. My wife Sarah and I run a mixed cropping farm in the Northern Midlands of Tasmania, Australia. Tasmania, being an island with a moderate climate, lends itself well to niche crops such as poppies, vegetables, cereals, and seed crops such as grass seed, carrot, etc. On the property we also run a prime lamb trading operation. As crops are harvested in summer, wheat and grass seed crops are planted and used as a cover or fodder crop to fatten lambs. Most of the property is irrigated using pivot irrigation. The soil is a red clay loam with very heavy clay subsoil. Crops suffer badly through the winter and early spring from losses attributed to waterlogging. Because of the heavy clay content, water infiltration is very slow and most crops suffer after prolonged periods of wet weather. Tile is used in conjunction with raised beds, surface drains and mole drains. All tile is put in by local contractor Tas Land Drainage, using a Mastenbroek trenchless plow with the aid of a laser. The company has been experimenting with GPS grade control and will hopefully take this technology on in the future. Gravel aggregate is placed around and on top of the tile up to 300 mm (one foot) of the surface to broaden the tile profile. In addition to this, mole draining at a depth of 600 mm (two feet) and two metres (approximately six to seven feet) apart is installed adjacent to the tile lines to allow water infiltration. The mole drainer is simply a vertical leg 600 mm (two foot) long with a cylindrical torpedo attached. Following this is an expander, to help compact the mole wall. Mole draining needs to be done when the clay is damp enough to hold the shape of the expander, but not too wet to be compacting the surface with machinery. The mole will stay there for four or five years and must then be reinstalled. My goal was to find out what causes waterlogging and how to reduce its effects. I studied monitoring soil, plant health, irrigation management using variable rate application, drainage and nutrient loss. Drainage was a large part of my investigation. During my travels I met with many contractors, manufacturers, researchers and farmers. It seems drainage itself hasn’t changed a lot over the years, but many things that surround it have. There is no doubt the addition of GPS technology has made a big difference to the way fields are drained. The design work takes minimal time using the latest watershed modelling programs. Utilizing these programs enables contractors to quote when looking into a new job. For the farmer or grower, this technology means they have a complete plan laying out the costing, tile size, tile placement and how much water can be drained off the field. Upon completion of the job, a record can be kept for reference in future extensions or repair work. GPS is also used to control tile grade and placement in regards to the field topography. This technology is a giant leap forward. Controlled drainage systems, utilizing control structures, have been well highlighted to show benefits in the reduction of nutrient loss. Tile control structures have become very popular. By placing these structures just before the out fall, the water table can be raised to hold water in field and let the rain soak in and filter through the soil profile. This also holds nutrients in the field longer and doesn’t allow them to flow straight through the drainage tile into the waterways as a pollutant. It is a very simple structure that drastically reduces the amount of nutrient loss, keeping nutrients in the field to aid in crop growth. I also met with researchers working on some very interesting programs. Richard Cooke, at Illinois State University, explained research is being done on saturated buffer zones and woodchip de-nitrification bioreactors to reduce nutrient loss. Hopefully, by using these methods in the future, nutrient loss will be vastly reduced.Another relatively new idea is the use of in-line water gates to raise water levels. Using these for subsurface irrigation was another idea that was really pushing the thinking of water management. As Chin Tan, with the Greenhouse and Processing Crops Research Centre in Harrow, Ont. explained, the tile is already there and if it can be utilised as an irrigation option from beneath the plant it will promote deeper “searching” roots. Of course a close monitoring program needs to be in place in case of a major rainfall event. This can be done by lowering the water profile before rainfall through the use of stop logs in the control structure.I was very impressed with the professionalism of the contractors that gave up some time to talk with me. They showed great precision and care when installing tile pipe. I am grateful for their honesty and openness when questioned on certain ideas and customs.  On returning home, after meeting so many great people with an array of ideas, I am focusing my time on a full system approach to waterlogging. The plan is to use the technology available to monitor as many factors as I can, and use drainage technique, design and technology, nutrient loss management, controlled tillage practices and variable rate irrigation to try to reduce crop loss from waterlogging. Greg Gibson is a Nuffield Australia 2014 Scholarship winner.

Environmental restoration

In 2005, Murray and Wilma Scott approached the Maitland Valley Conservation Authority with a common drainage issue. With hard work, they resolved the issue for good and were awarded the Ontario Minister’s Award for Environmental Excellence for their efforts.Ten years on, the Scott farm continues to demonstrate to drainage contractors, farmers and community leaders alike the benefits of using a systems approach when it comes to drainage.The rolling farm near Belgrave, Ont., has been in the Scott family since 1856, when it was purchased from the Crown. While the fields are heavy clay, a gravel bottom provides great natural drainage and a high water table means that the Scotts have to manage a lot of water. A municipal drain was dug in the early 1950s, outletting to the Belgrave Creek, which flows to Lake Huron via the Maitland River. For years, runoff coming from the farmed slopes brought a steady stream of sediment into the open section of the drain. While the drain’s consistent flow meant that it didn’t require dredging, the Scotts still had their share of troubles with it flooding their fields. “It was a messy thing and it was getting wider over time,” Murray says. They also noticed the trout that had once spawned in the watercourse had disappeared.  To address these issues, the Scotts wanted to create clear and cold water on the property, says Simon VanDriel of VanDriel Excavating in Clinton, Ont. “Water comes from over there and leaves over there, we can’t change that,” he explains. The solution is to slow down the water by capturing it in wetlands and forcing it to take a much longer route to Belgrave Creek. “When water gets to the lake, it is lost. I know that sounds funny, but you actually want to get it underground and to keep up the water table,” VanDriel says.Between 2005 and 2009, the Maitland Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA) coordinated the funding and construction of a project that would showcase a whole suite of drainage solutions on the Scott farm. Agricultural runoff is now redirected through 2,558 feet of berms, 2,030 feet of grassed waterways and four standing inlet pipes into six constructed wetlands. Flow is controlled with three control boxes and an overflow culvert, while water is filtered through two French drains and three nitrate filters. In total, 813 feet of the channelized drain was restored to a low flow meandering channel with native shrubs and trees planted in the riparian areas. An additional 4,033 feet of trees were planted as windbreaks to protect topsoil from wind erosion.This solution was far beyond what the Scotts had originally expected. “And tours were never something we imagined when we started this,” Murray says with a laugh. In the last decade, the Scotts have taken hundreds of people around the property to show them how it all works. In looking back however, Murray feels that they started working on the wrong end of the drain. “We should’ve started upstream and worked our way down,” he says. “Any project of this nature should be done on a watershed basis.” Geoff King, stewardship coordinator with the MVCA agrees. The organization is currently working with the four landowners upstream to intercept the runoff in a series of erosion control berms that will slow the water down even before it gets to the Scott drain. King is also exploring the possibilities of including these berms and other improvements under the protection of the Drainage Act. This will ensure that the area’s natural infrastructure is maintained for optimal function. Murray points to the fact that his farm was once part of the extensive Queen’s Bush that was cleared and drained for agriculture over a century ago. “Water used to pool in these places and go down into the aquifer, but now we’re draining it all in a short period of time.” He believes that with a bit of common sense, we can mimic Mother Nature while still making agriculture viable. “We still need to tile drain because we can’t be productive without it,” he adds. “But through the experience of doing all this it has become clear to me that we were doing things all wrong in just letting the water go downstream and all drain away like that.” His field tiles no longer outlet directly to the drain, but empty into a series of constructed wetlands that allow the water to filter and seep down, along with the yard and roof runoff. When Murray systematically tiled an adjacent 80-acre field in 2009, a control box was put on the main header at the downstream end of the field, so water can be stored there underground if needed. The field drains into a 370 by 130 foot stormwater management pond. The pond was dug over the 14-inch municipal drain, and VanDriel opened the municipal tile with a control structure that diverts water to the pond in low flow conditions and back into the drain during high flow conditions. The pond can hold 290,000 cubic feet of stormwater and extra overflow culvert outlets along a grassed waterway into the woodlot. The pond drains back into the municipal tile through the control structure and outlets just 37 feet further downstream onto a rock chute within the woodlot. A field tile from the north also outlets through a nitrate filter in this location. Here a deeper pond was dug to act as a sediment trap and as a low flow pond for fish.  Overflow from two wetlands in the southeast join the drain here. These were naturally wet depressions that were dug out to increase the area’s water storing capacity. Perhaps the biggest project was creating a 1,920 foot-long berm and grassed waterway that curves along the north edge of the Scott drain and has also provided a new access road for machinery and tours. The grassed waterways safely convey the field runoff to two separate catchment areas, one 80 acres to the west and the other 60 acres to the east. At the base of the east berm, a 620-foot long circular French drain filters water before it outlets in a four-inch pipe under the laneway and into the Scott drain. The drain is lined with filter cloth, backfilled with sand and “A” gravel, and then covered with topsoil and grass. A six-inch overflow culvert outlets under the road at the top end of the open section of the drain. This section had long been straightened, but King was eager to construct a low flow channel that would meander and have the ability to self-maintain. While most of these meandering channels are professionally engineered, in this case the team spent time observing the channel’s flow patterns and then put in sod clumps to make the channel narrower and accentuate its existing shape. They found shallow ground water seeping out of the bank that now added cold and clear water to the base flow, whereas before it had been oozing from the silt along the drain. The Scotts were impressed with the naturalized channel. “A week later it looked like it had always been that way,” Wilma says. On the west side of the property, surface water is intercepted in two areas behind the long berm and drains through standing inlet pipes and into a wetland, along with the field tile from the north. Decades ago, the Scotts built fish hatcheries along the drain, but the concrete tanks were left vacant for many years before the team thought of using them as nitrate filters. In 2008, Will Robinson with the University of Waterloo joined the team to pilot a nitrate filter design project. Two hatcheries were laid with a grid of four-inch PVC perforated pipe and filled with woodchips. Overflow from the wetland runs along a grassed waterway into the first filter, on to the second and then outlets to the Scott drain. Water quality monitoring has shown that the filters were effective at removing 100 per cent of the nitrates from the water that went through them, though they can only filter a small fraction of the total runoff. One challenge with this system is that it needs to have a consistent flow of water through it. “If the flow is too high, then it doesn’t have enough time to take the nitrates out,” VanDriel says. “But if you don’t put enough water through it, it dries out and becomes too acidic to work.” The team worked with Parish Geomorphic to engineer the naturalized channel near the filters, and other difficult areas of the project were professionally designed as well.“It was a unique project, because there was no ‘blueprint’ so to speak,” VanDriel says. “It existed in Geoff’s head and we worked on our hunches. We knew the principles, we knew the landscape, and we knew what we needed to accomplish.” They have replicated these principles across a number of subsequent projects in the area, most notably in the Pine River watershed, to the north. The Scott Farm project was made possible by funding from Greencover Canada, Huron County, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Ministry of Natural Resources, Parish Geomorphic, VanDriel Excavating, MVCA and, of course, the landowners themselves. The Scotts retired 10 acres of land and put much of their own time and money into the project. Their enthusiasm and dedication to the project, including running tours for the public, has earned them some well-earned recognition, including the 2013 Minister’s Award for Environmental Excellence. Fish sampling in 2014 monitored a substantial amount of small brook trout, and water quality samples indicate that the area has been significantly improved.  The Scotts will admit that these improvements haven’t put any money in their pockets, but they are happy to be keeping their topsoil on the property. In the last decade, the drain has required no maintenance and it has withstood some of the worst weather on record in Ontario, including one of the driest years on record in 2012, followed by one of the wettest years recorded in 2013. The proof is in the water: while nearby watercourses are running full and muddy, the base flows of the Scott drain remain constant, clear and cool.

Managing runoff

Researchers are in agreement; too much phosphorus is finding its way into field tile. But rather than demand a moratorium on tile drainage installation, many are suggesting more practical drainage solutions for the agricultural industry.The problematic algal blooms that are plaguing Lake Erie are being fed by high concentrations of phosphorus, particularly between March and June each year. Although there are many contributing factors to the growing problem, the timing suggests agricultural sources may be significant. After heavy rains in the spring of 2011 spawned the largest algal bloom in Lake Erie’s history, the International Joint Commission, which was created by the Boundary Waters Treaty to prevent and resolve disputes between Canada and the United States, formed the Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority (LEEP). In a report released last year, the organization identified that non-point sources (which include agricultural operations) truly are contributing more than 50 per cent of incoming phosphorus loads. Douglas Smith, a soil scientist working with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS) in Temple, Texas, has a dominant interest in phosphorus transport. Between 2004 and 2013, he was involved in research that aimed to clarify the impact of conservation farming practices on the Lake Erie basin, and found several undesirable effects on the amount of phosphorus entering the watershed. No-till, for example, doubled soluble phosphorus loading compared to rotational tillage (tilling only before planting corn). But in the same study, Smith found it also decreased total phosphorus loading by 69 per cent compared to rotational tillage. Similarly, grassed waterways increased soluble phosphorus loads, but not total phosphorus. Only the recommended rotational practice of planting corn, then soybeans, wheat, and oats reduced both soluble and total phosphorus loads (by 85 per cent and 83 per cent, respectively) compared to the standard corn–soybean rotation. Now researchers are concluding even the best farming practices can’t be solely depended upon to protect the lake and Smith is offering a piece of advice to drainage contractors.“Be aware that drainage may have a target on its back,” he warns. Both the International Joint Commission and the Ohio Phosphorus Task Force set phosphorus loading reduction targets of 39 per cent and 37 per cent respectively in 2013. In looking for ways to make those targets a reality, Smith says he personally has already been involved in multiple studies focused on tile drainage discharge. What he was surprised to discover in research fields was that as much as 49 per cent of soluble phosphorus and 48 per cent of total phosphorus losses occurred through tile discharge.“The water was hitting the tile much quicker than what I was expecting,” he says. “Our peak discharge in surface runoff happened at almost the exact same time as the peak discharge in the tile flow, so there’s a lot more surface connection through macropores, root channels, worm holes, and soil cracking in the region than what I had realized.”Smith says these preferential flow paths have proven to be more pronounced in certain soil types. Kevin King, an agricultural research engineer also with the USDA ARS, but located in Columbus, Ohio, says most of the soils in Ohio are poorly drained and couldn’t be farmed without tile. They also tend to be soil types that are prone to developing preferential flow paths. “We did a review article for the Journal of Environmental Quality and the fine textured clay soils will have more losses than your sandy soils due to preferential flow paths, even though phosphorus will bind to those clay particles,” King says. The fact that clay binds phosphorus only further complicates the problem as farmers increase fertilizer rates accordingly. King notes that if farmers in Ohio were applying phosphorus fertilizers through subsurface placement, this may not be as much of a problem, but the most common practice still seems to be broadcast application. “If we have preferential flow paths that develop in fine texture soils, then any water that migrates into those is carrying that rich phosphorus off the surface, into the tile.”North of Lake Erie, subsurface application of phosphorus seems to be more common. Merrin Macrae, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ont., together with a team of surface-water chemistry students and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) recently concluded a study of field surface runoff and tile systems effluent from Ontario cropland. Between May 2012 and April 2013, this research team demonstrated that although tile sources contributed 78 per cent of total runoff at one research site, surface runoff contained 81 per cent of the soluble phosphorus lost and an equal amount of total phosphorus. Their other site produced similar results. But in the first year of data at a new high clay site, tile drainage played more of a role relative to surface runoff. Macrae says that although there’s still a lot to learn, especially about the role of soil type, their research produces some clear lessons.“Overland flow has much higher concentrations of phosphorus than our tile drainage effluent,” Macrae says. The challenge, as far as she’s concerned, is keeping that surface water from running directly into tile systems. “I’m not saying tiles are not a phosphorus source, but they seem to move phosphorus at a lower rate partly because of the soil types at our sites and how they are managed.”For example, Macrae says it is clear a surface inlet that takes field runoff right into the tile drainage system is disastrous from a phosphorus standpoint. That’s why she’s working with OMAFRA’s Kevin McKague to promote the use and proper construction of surface water treatments such as water and sediment control basins (WASCoB). Macrae says she doesn’t think people outside of the research community have any idea just how much beneficial collaboration is currently in progress, on both sides of the border.“The research that’s gone on for the last four or five years has very much been a collaboration between governments, farmers and researchers working together to get the right answers,” she says. King agrees that a lot of good collaboration has gone into addressing the issue so far, but he believes meeting phosphorus reduction targets is going to require the help of even more contributors. “How we get from science to implementation is where drainage contractors, ag retailers and the governments fit,” he says. “It’s all of our responsibilities to not only learn the science, but then to relate that to the producers to get that implemented.”King believes drainage contractors are well equipped to offer advice to farmers when installing tile systems, taking soil type and farming practices into consideration. Farmers that broadcast fertilizer and practice no-till on a high clay content field need to hear about the effects of artificially adjusting the outlet elevation of their tile. “If we raise that outlet elevation to 16 or 18 inches from the surface during the winter months, we have the potential to reduce the amount of water leaving the site anywhere from eight to 45 per cent,” he explains. During winter months, when phosphorus losses start to rise, King says drainage control can reduce the amount that’s leaving the site anywhere from 40 to 65 per cent.King also recommends blind inlets, sometimes also called French drains, in a no-till system. Smith says they’re absolutely perfect for closed depressions and pothole sites. “Blind inlets are basically an alternative practice to tile risers,” Smith said. “We put them in at the lowest point of potholes and we got pretty good reductions for phosphorus, in the neighbourhood of 40 to 80 per cent phosphorus reduction depending on the year.” Smith says that in the comparative study conducted over six years, he found that sediment and nutrient loads were particularly improved during extreme weather conditions such as the wet spring of 2010. The study was so conclusive, it led to the development of a Natural Resource Conservation Service Standard for installing a blind inlet in Indiana. King says they’re currently looking into improving this system even further by back-filling the leach field with steel slag rather than pea gravel, which would offer greater phosphorus binding properties, but the effectiveness of these strategies is yet to be determined. King says there is still a vast amount of research to be done.“Right now we’re putting band aids on a severed arm, just trying to stop the bleeding,” he says. “We’re going to have to stack practices and we have to understand that what works on one operation may not work on another.”Smith agrees, noting that even now there are a number of research projects that could prove very effective. He also agrees one size certainly won’t fit all and there will potentially be lots of new practices for drainage contractors to get involved in developing.


U.K. Update: Digging in the dark

Like many, I’m keenly awaiting the arrival of spring. This winter has been neither particularly snowy nor sodden for us, just a standard British winter, which makes draining land difficult. In the British Isles our weather is mild. We do not suffer from periods of extreme cold or heat and, on the whole, intense weather is something we experience only on the news. What we do have is rain and, in most places, heavy clay soils. These conditions are not good when combined with heavy drainage machines and over wintering crops. Our workload dwindles over the winter and each year we scratch around trying to find work that we can do. To begin with, this reduced pace makes a welcome change from the frantic pressures of the post-harvest rush, but by the time February arrives it is a drag on morale –and on the bank account. While I’m quite busy sending out estimates and drumming up work for next week, the guys are doing bits and pieces and painting our kit, none of which turns a profit. The only answer I can find, (and please correct me if you can) is to be flexible and try to say “Yes” to any opportunity that comes your way. This can lead us to places we have not been to before. That’s what happened to us this winter.Birmingham International Airport is one of the busiest in Britain and, as part of an expansion program, the runway has been lengthened. This is a major undertaking, as the A45 (one of the primary routes in and out of Britain’s second largest city) had to be re-routed. The work has taken over a year and has cost millions of pounds. One problem, tiny in terms of the size of the entire project, has been land drainage. The low laying ground beside the runway has standing water on it, and whilst this has not caused a problem yet, a flooded runway cannot be left untended, so we were asked to install some land drains. Of course, this is our bread and butter. The job itself was very standard fare; however, the location was certainly not. For some pretty obvious reasons we could not work beside the runway when planes were landing, so we undertook the first night work in the company’s 75-year history. The only time planes don’t land or take off is in the dead of night, meaning the working hours were from 11:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. We fitted lights on our machinery and floodlights provided enough light to work by. That was the easy part. Such a short working shift limited what could be done in a day and the job took twice as long as it would have if it had been completed in daylight hours. Rather reassuringly, security was tight and we had to pass through a strict security procedure each night. Health and safety was of paramount importance and involved numerous inspections, pre-work briefings and regulations. The drainage machine and other plant items could not be left on-site, so everything was taken off-site to a compound nearby via the airport’s main runway and taxi. After we finished working, the runway and surrounding area had to be swept for any debris, mud, overlooked tools and the like. No chances were taken, nor could there be.This contract may have been the most unusual job we have ever undertaken, but it is not the only time we have laid drains in curious places. Just last year we drained the elephant enclosure for a zoo! We have no choice. To survive, grow and develop the business, we have to be flexible. I suspect that most fellow contractors reading this will have similar stories of working in strange places far from our natural home of farmers’ fields. Like us, you probably say, “Yes, of course we can,” and then wonder how the hell to do the job, but without an attitude like that, I doubt if we would be in business. Such an approach is at its heart positive, and a positive outlook is more valuable than anything else.

Eye in the sky

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are generating a lot of buzz in the agriculture sector lately. The rapidly evolving technology is giving farmers the ability to understand what’s happening in their fields like never before, and new rules coming down the pipeline on both sides of the border have the potential to open up new opportunities to put these powerful machines to work. Drainage contractors too stand to benefit from adopting UAV technology into their operations.There are two types of UAVs: a fixed-wing model that flies like a miniature airplane, and a rotor model that can hover in place like a miniature helicopter. Both models can be kitted out with cameras and sensors to deliver a bird’s-eye view of a farm, providing a snapshot of field conditions. To capture this data, the UAV flies multiple passes overhead, constantly snapping pictures to ensure complete coverage of the survey area. These pictures are then stitched together and can be imported into geographic information system (GIS) or computer-assisted design (CAD) software, allowing the user to study the aerial images and pinpoint areas that require closer inspection by a trained human eye to diagnose what’s at the root of any trouble spots.“The bird’s eye view lets you get the holistic view of the field, and that’s a big help. You can see very clearly the differences in the field based on drainage, evaporation rates and things like that, particularly surveying after a rainstorm. It gives contractors a view of the field that they can’t really get any other way,” says Ernest Earon, founder of PrecisionHawk. The company, with headquarters in Raleigh, N.C., and satellite offices across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and India, provides a complete system for aerial surveying. It’s designed to be user-friendly: simply throw the UAV into the air and it will fly multiple transects over a pre-programmed area to collect a complete survey of the field. PrecisionHawk’s UAV can fly in rain, snow and wind up to 40 to 45 km/hour. Above this threshold, the wind can compromise the efficiency of the survey. If the machine, which monitors flight conditions in real-time, determines wind speeds are too high, it will turn around and land so the survey can be attempted at a later time, under more favourable conditions.The UAV can capture data on up to 500 acres in a single flight; a survey of this size can take up to an hour to complete. Users have access to a first look at the data within minutes of completing the survey. PrecisionHawk also turns the complete survey data package around quickly.“Depending on the size and the intensity of the survey, we can have a completely processed photomosaic in your email inbox within an hour,” Earon says. “For a very data intensive survey it might take several hours, but the idea is to get the information turned around as fast as we can.”Drainage applicationsHighEye Aerial Imaging, located in Wasaga Beach, Ont., specializes in aerial imaging services, capturing high definition photography and videography at low altitude with its fixed-wing and multi-rotor machines. Both types of UAVs feature on-board sensors that record and automatically transmit data to the ground in real-time. Although HighEye hasn’t yet flown any surveys strictly for drainage purposes, president Murray Hunt sees many opportunities for contractors to use UAVs in their operations.“The biggest thing I see for the drainage contractors is that it saves time. In the design stage and in the pre-layout surveying, you can get the topography of the property,” Hunt says. “Through processing, we can provide detailed elevation data and generate contour maps... We can export the data into the CAD program so you can take the geographic information and convert it into a file that someone could load onto their software and do a final drainage design.” As Hunt explains, latitude, longitude and elevation data is all embedded in the software. “This way, not only do you get all the geographic information, but you actually have an image and you can plop that on the aerial image of the property that you’re looking at.”Imaging technology can spot differences from one section of field to the next, but it can’t yet distinguish a drainage issue from a disease issue. “If you’re looking at drainage and soil content, at moisture content in the soil, we don’t at the moment have any tools that can tell you exactly what the moisture content is in the soil or what the water level is and things like that,” Earon explains. The technology allows users to zero in on areas that require a closer look; it’s up to the user to get out in the field and identify the root cause of any trouble spots the survey reveals.UAVs can also be a useful tool in helping contractors pinpoint the precise location of any existing drain tile in a field. “You can’t actually sense the tile, but you can sense all the symptoms in the crop above it, whether it’s nutrient deficiency they’re finding with an infrared camera or a multi-spectral camera or just locating drain tile the day after it rains,” explains Todd Golly, co-founder of Leading Edge Technologies in Winnebago, Minn., and himself a drainage contractor. “That’s one of our things that we do most actually: locate old tile.”Upgrades that dig deeperAs UAV technology and its applications evolve, existing equipment is being adapted to give operators new insights into what’s happening on the ground. For example, PrecisionHawk’s UAV system can be equipped with a thermal camera that allows users to capture information about standing water on a field and evaporation rates in the soil.“If you’re using the thermal cameras and looking at soil temperature, you can tell if you’re getting much higher evaporation rates with cooler soil early in the morning,” Earon explains. “That’s not necessarily saying it’s oversaturated and you have a drainage problem, but if you get a patch of field where you clearly have more water or faster evaporation rates, you would see that in the thermal image. It would look cooler and then you would want to go out and find out why.”Leading Edge Technologies is also adapting new technology to its operations. The company now offers an optional multi-spectral camera attachment for its UAVs. The MultiSpec 4C unit contains four 1.2 megapixel sensors that collect data about the wavelengths of light being absorbed by a crop. Healthy plants reflect and absorb various wavelengths of light in different quantities than plants experiencing stress. So, by capturing data about how a crop is using light in the green, red, red-edge and near infrared (NIR) wavelengths, a multi-spectral camera can identify variances in crop health. These differences aren’t necessarily visible to the human eye, nor at ground level, but when seen from the sky, patterns can become apparent. The overhead, whole of field view can allow drainage professionals to pick out patterns of lines running through the crop that may indicate plants are growing along the path of existing tile.Technology is continuing to drive innovation, and new tools to help agriculture professionals do their jobs more effectively are just around the corner. In the coming months, PrecisionHawk hopes to introduce a new ground penetrating radar sensor capable of providing information about soil content, moisture content, and the depth of the water table. Earon expects the company will be flying prototypes of this sensor by mid-summer. A question of costThe price tag on a UAV can run from a few hundred dollars for a hobbyist craft, up to thousands of dollars for a commercial grade unit. Factor in software and the costs of investing in a complete system can add up quickly. “You’re going to be in that range of $25,000 for the UAV and complete software package that can create these three-dimensional surveys with topography,” Golly says. “That software will also be able to export to other drainage programs. If you want to add different sensors, there will be additional costs on top of that.”A multispectral scanner can run about $13,000, while a thermal camera can sell for about $17,000.“The other option is an RTK [real time kinematic] version that will give you a bit more accurate topography,” Golly adds. “You won’t be able to fly the thermal camera and the multi-spec camera because they’re not compatible, but if you want the greatest accuracy – sub-inch accuracy – on topography, you could upgrade to an RTK system, which is in the $50,000 range.” However, Golly, who says farming remains his main job, adds, “We don’t use the RTK version for surveying; it’s mainly for planting.”Golly recommends drainage professionals on the market for a UAV start with the base unit and build on to the bird with additional sensors as needed. Another option to leverage the power of UAVs in your business without taking on the cost of operating your own system is to contract a professional firm to fly surveys on an as-needed basis.Surveying the legal landscapeBoth the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Transport Canada (TC) are working toward new regulations governing UAV use that balance creating an operator-friendly environment with ensuring public safety, and reflect the realities of the technology. Although it may still be a while yet before either body has a full set of final rules in place, if they remain true to the proposals currently on the table, the changes could usher in a new era of UAV use in agriculture.The FAA’s proposed rules for UAV use were announced in February. As they stand now, the new rules would require operators to comply with a certification process that includes an exam. Operators would also have to register and maintain the aircraft, and adhere to limitations on the UAV’s operation. Some of these limitations include: the UAV must not exceed a maximum weight of 55 pounds (25 kg); the operator must maintain visual line-of-sight with the UAV at all times; and the UAV may not fly above a maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level.“We think it’s a very common sense, practical set of operational guidelines, and we’re very pleased to see things moving forward from a regulatory standpoint,” Earon says. “The environment is finally getting to the point where people can make the decision [to invest in a UAV] and know that they’re going to be able to go out there and fly.”TC is also working toward streamlining its regulations for UAV operations. In November 2014, the department introduced two exemptions to make it easier for small UAV operators to fly: a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) is no longer required for certain operations using a UAV weighing less than 2kg, or, with prior authorization from Transport Canada, a UAV weighing less than 25 kg. For these exemptions to apply, the operator must keep the UAV within visual line-of-sight, and fly at or below 300 feet above ground level, among other limitations.“They’ve really made it very feasible for individuals to be operating these systems over their farm fields,” Earon says.Hunt, an active member of the non-profit Unmanned Systems Canada, which represents the interests of the country’s unmanned vehicle systems community, says the association is working with TC to further streamline the regulations. “Agriculture is a huge and incredibly data-hungry space. They need answers and they need information to guide their decision-making process, so there’s a lot of attention being focused on making tools to support that,” Earon says. “Stay tuned because we have a lot of very interesting things coming.”

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