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Creating a project toolkit

An update on the Transforming Drainage project

May 9, 2016  By Bob Clark

It was a busy and productive first year for the Transforming Drainage research study, according to project manager Ben Reinhart.

Funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and led by Jane Frankenberger of Purdue University in Indiana, the project team brings together a wide network of drainage stakeholders to discuss, among other things, controlled drainage, drainage water recycling, and saturated buffers. These practices represent the core focus of this project as ways to promote sustainable crop production while providing protections to water quality.

This past year researchers spoke with more than 700 farmers, drainage contractors, residents, land managers, agribusiness representatives and agency staff during extension events in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Nebraska.

Field drainage research is a key component of the project. According to Reinhart, Transforming Drainage has aggregated data spanning 34 experimental drainage sites across eight states to establish an extensive database of agronomic, hydrologic, and climate data from across the Midwest. Approximately half of these locations represent completed research projects, some with 10 or more years of data from the field, while the remaining half are continuing to collect data during the project to add to the ever-growing database. All this was part of the effort to better understand drainage, water storage, and re-use on site. Through 2016, the project team will begin to dive deeper into these questions to identify landscape and economic factors that will provide input to assist practical implementation decisions.


Project research and data will be developed into tools for drainage professionals that translate information into action. Want to know how big of a pond you need to subsurface irrigate with your tile system? No problem. Want to know what the expected production improvement of a practice would be? No problem. This information is a key part of the toolkit that is a focal point of the project – and this is the kind of thing that, in my opinion, will really help new conservation practices take off. I am excited to accompany the development of these tools and communicate their evolution to the contractor community as the project develops.

As we continue through spring, the plows and trenchers that many of us spend our days operating, or thinking about, will be steadily installing more and more tile. It’s one of my favorite times of the year – getting back into the field with increasing consistency as winter loosens its grip. There is also excitement as we experience the mad dash to finish work before our customers have finished planting.

This spring, take the time to design and implement your tile systems in a way that is suitable for conservation practice retrofits when applicable. It’s an approach to which I’ve found growers to be very receptive, and one that leaves the door open for increased sustainability and production in the future. This could be as simple as planning to install control structure(s) at a later date, or incorporating a saturated buffer or bio-reactor during the summer when it’s dry and ideal for installation. I understand the pressure to get work done, but I also know the best time to evaluate a site for a conservation practice is when you are putting together the tile plan. Don’t miss a future opportunity to sell more work and get more conservation on the ground because you are too focused on today.

Extension products, field days and drainage workshops will continue to be delivered across the Midwest. If you have any questions or comments about the Transforming Drainage project, I urge you to email Ben at breinhar@purdue.edu so that he can build the best toolkit possible.

Bob Clark is the president of Clark Farm Drainage in New Castle, IN, and a member of the advisory committee for the Transforming Drainage project. For more information, visit www.transformingdrainage.org.

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