Drainage Contractor

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Online tools for drainage

Online technology can help contractors plan better installs.


May 25, 2020
By Julienne Isaacs

Topics
Google Earth gives contractors a bird's-eye view of a farmer’s field. Photo courtesy of Nicole Keane.

When it comes to designing the best drainage systems, the majority of the work happens before the plow ever reaches the field. Most of it happens in virtual space – on design software, and, lately, online.

Tom Scherer, an associate professor in extension engineering for North Dakota State University (NDSU), leads NDSU’s annual Ag Tile Drainage Design Workshop. The workshop includes a lesson on online tools that can help contractors prep for an install, he says.

“In the workshop, we say you are going to spend several months planning your tile system before you lay anything in the field. The planning is sometimes the hardest part – getting all the permits, field information and doing the layout. There is no one right way to subsurface drain a field. You can do it multiple ways, but the installation is critical,” he says.

Together with the switch to higher-value commodity crops and increased land prices, advances in technology served a crucial role in making tile drainage more affordable on many more acres, Scherer argues.

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“Technology has made it a lot easier to plan, lay out and install systems, and to do it more cost-effectively,” he says. “It’s made a big difference. It’s like a lot of things – a lot of great ideas have to wait for the technology and development of tools to catch up with it.”

“Technology has made it a lot easier to plan, lay out and install systems, and to do it more cost-effectively,” he says.

John Scott, a digital agriculture extension coordinator at Purdue University, agrees the accuracy and availability of tools is improving all the time. But what matters most when it comes to shiny new tools, says Scott, is how they’re used.

“Layering that information to get value – that’s where the future is,” he says. “We’re not good at it. We’re good at developing new tools and trying new tools, but as an industry, agriculture is not very good at leveraging the data we collect.

“I think that’s the key for the future of agriculture, whether it’s row cropping or drainage,” he says.

Knowing the field history and soil types, having a plan before going into the field and leveraging that information to have better conversations with farmers is critical. There are a few online tools that can help build a strong design foundation for a drainage system.

Online tools

Editor’s Note: Find links to all the tools mentioned at the end of this article.

Brett Sheffield, president of Manitoba’s NextGen Drainage, says his company uses a few online tools during its preliminary due diligence process for every project.

“We have several main tools we use online that give us an inside look on what the field is before we get there,” Sheffield says.

Google Earth gives NextGen a “bird’s-eye view” of a farmer’s field while contractors are talking with them in an initial phone call, Sheffield says. “This helps to get an idea of what target areas they may be interested in or infrastructure concerns with outlets, such as highways and gravel roads.”

Google Earth gives NextGen a “bird’s-eye view” of a farmer’s field while contractors are talking with them in an initial phone call, Sheffield says.

A very comprehensive tool for U.S. contractors is the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)-developed Web Soil Survey, which has digitized U.S. soils; Scherer says the tool can estimate Ksat values to a depth of five feet. Saturated hydraulic conductivity (Ksat) is the ease with which pores of a saturated soil transmit water. In Canada, historical soils information can be found via the Canadian Soil Information Service website.

Scherer also recommends a similar tool that also uses the digitized soils information from the NRCS called SoilWeb, a Google Earth overlay developed by the California Soils Resource Lab available on their website.

South Dakota State University hosts a series of online drain spacing calculators on their website, Scherer says. Once contractors have a handle on soil types they can plug those values into the calculators to determine spacing based on a field’s characteristics.

NextGen’s team regularly uses Prinsco’s drainage calculator, Sheffield says.

For topographical conditions in the field, the North Dakota State Water Commission hosts an open-access portal to LiDAR elevation data. This information is also available via the NRCS. Canadian portals to LiDAR data can be found on the Canadian GIS and Geospatial Resources website.

NextGen uses Google Timelapse to find wetlands that are always present, versus cultivated acres that go through wet and dry cycles, Sheffield says. New regulations in Manitoba mean Class III wetlands (seasonal ponds characterized by marsh vegetation that dry by midsummer) can’t be tiled without a high per-acre contribution payment.

Online permit applications are the next step for NextGen, Sheffield says. In Manitoba, these can be registered on the Sustainable Development online portal.

South Dakota State University hosts a series of drain spacing calculators on their website. Contractors can calculate spacing based on field characteristics.

The future of drainage technology

Andy Mackrill, a drainage system design specialist with Ecosystem Services Exchange, says contractors only adopt new technologies or tools if they meaningfully improve efficiency.

He says there “aren’t a ton of new tools coming out” in either the public or private sectors, but the more automated online design tools are coming more from the private side, while data-driven methodology and guidelines for practice come from the public sector.

He says there “aren’t a ton of new tools coming out” in either the public or private sectors, but the more automated online design tools are coming more from the private side, while data-driven methodology and guidelines for practice come from the public sector.

Most design tools aren’t yet online, but some companies are moving in that direction. For example, this summer North Dakota-based Ellingson Drainage plans to launch a web-based tool for working with producers.

Charlie Schafer is president of Agri Drain, sister company of Ecosystem Services Exchange. He says industry-led developments are aimed both at improving contractor efficiency and improving the systems themselves.

“There’s an effort underway to take a look at, ‘Okay, now we know how to put it in better, how do we make it perform better? How do we make that tile make more money for the farmer and give them a reason to implement new practices?’ [We’re always trying] to take advantage of the technical systems available and achieve high performance water management, reduce risks and provide that environmental uplift,” Schafer says.

“There’s an effort underway to take a look at, ‘Okay, now we know how to put it in better, how do we make it perform better? How do we make that tile make more money for the farmer and give them a reason to implement new practices?’”

It’s a hefty list of goals, but as technology improves, so does contractors’ ability to meet them.

“When you’re trying to get to that level of accuracy, having these tools is huge. Accuracy and availability of new technology is improving, and contractors are starting to embrace that,” Scott says.

 

Find the tools online

Tool

Good for:

Google EarthA bird’s eye view of the land.
NRCS-developed
Web Soil Survey
Can estimate Ksat values up to five feet.
Canadian Soil
Information Service
Historic soil information across Canada.
SoilWebOverlaying detailed soil survey data on maps, compatible with Google Earth.
SDSU Online
Drainage Calculators
Calculating answers for drainage questions such as spacing, drainage coefficient, area drained by pipe sizes, and more.
Prinsco’s Drainage
Calculator
Estimating the capacity of tile drainage systems when you know grade and pipe size.
NDSU pen-access portal to LiDAR elevation dataDownloading LiDAR elevation data and this tool is best for those familiar with LiDAR data.
Canadian GIS and Geospatial ResourcesAccessing LiDAR data for Canada.
Google Timelapse:
a Google Earth feature found within viewing options
Viewing how maps have changed over time, including wetlands and crop cycles.
Manitoba’s Drainage and Water Control online portalContractors applying for approval for drainage projects in Manitoba.