While many regions of the country have been dealing with prolonged arid conditions, courtesy of La Nina, others have been dealing with excess moisture. Diving into the topic of innovations in managing soil water resources at the National Association of Conservation Districts annual meeting earlier this year were professionals who may have solutions.

Presenting on the field of automated drainage water management (ADWM) were Charlie Schafer, president of Agri Drain Corp. and board chair of the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition, and Keegan Kult, executive director of the coalition.

They noted that management of soil water is “foundational to optimize desired outcomes, including crop production, environmental results and climate resilience.”

What is drainage water management? It is when a control structure is used to manage a drainage system’s outlet height to control the timing and volume of water that is drained.

Per the 2017 Ag Census, 56 million acres of cropland were being tile drained, predominantly with pattern tile. However, ADWM practices are suited for over 100 million acres with sandy soils – “and we’re talking about scaling up,” Schafer said.

Sandy soils are particularly problematic for producers because they don’t hold water or nutrients very well. They also aren’t great at building up organic matter, a necessary base for strong crops.

Schafer said ADWM is suitable on well over 30 million acres of tile-drained cropland. There are a lot of benefits to the automated technology, including optimization of soil water resources – such as the management of too much (or too little) soil water to achieve a grower’s desired soil water regime and aim for climate change resilience.

He also noted there are 30 million suitable acres for drainage control in the Midwest. He and his associates are currently working on gathering data for the East Coast.

Other benefits include enduring solutions for which the investment pays dividends for many years (for example, ADWM can last 10 – 20 years with proper maintenance). There are no producer labor requirements once the conservation practice is installed. And the return on investment from increased crop yields alone can be significant. Schafer said ADWM pays for itself in three to four years for corn production.

Bigger pictures, there are also multiple environmental benefits, including water quality improvement, reduced water demand and increased fertilizer use efficiency.

But, like any new technology, adopting something new can be an uphill battle. Schafer suggested some actions to accelerate and expand adoption of these ADWM technologies: improved awareness and education and promotion of these innovative technologies in the ag and conservation communities.

As farmers continue moving into automation and remote control, the advantages of ADWM become clear: immediate access to control structures, time savings to better manage multiple fields, response to the needs of the crop based on current/forecasted conditions, documentation of water management and active management that can reduce peak flows.

Innovative strategic partnership approaches in key states to facilitate producer adoption “at scale” by removing barriers or burdens is another option. It’s also about “clear and consistent articulation of the benefits of these innovative practices: crop yields, climate resilience and environmental benefits,” he added. “We just need more innovative partnership resources.”

Kult outlined the benefits of the current standard, tile drainage: earlier planting, better harvest conditions, decreases in crop damage, improved nitrogen use efficiency, decreased energy needs, improved profitability and increased land value.

For those who are data driven, agronomic efficiency improves by 14% in drained vs. undrained fields. Improved drainage systems reduce nitrous oxide emissions by a factor of 1.7, and controlled drainage reduces the annual variability in the agronomic optimum nitrogen rate by 75%.

Here are some more numbers: The average crop drought loss in the Midwest is $1.46 billion; the average excess moisture loss is $1.41 billion. “It’s getting worse because of these weather anomalies – huge rains and mega-droughts,” Schafer said.

Ultimately, the benefits of drainage water management are easy to see – there’s often a 5% – 10% crop yield increase, an average nitrogen use reduction of 33% (and in some reported instances, up to 88%), up to 50% soluble phosphorus reduction – and even seasonal flooding that’s necessary for some wildlife.

Those interested in learning more about this specific topic are invited to attend the 2023 Conservation Drainage Network Annual Meeting, taking place April 4 – 6 in Easton, MD. See conservationdrainage.net for details.

by Courtney Llewellyn