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Discover field drainage data

Controlled drainage system keeps moisture when needed, releases moisture when work needs to be done.

Kevin Schulz, Editor

August 25, 2023

3 Min Read
Two men standing in field of crops
HIGH-TECH DRAINAGE: Tim Radatz (right), Discovery Farms coordinator, and Scott Matteson, Discovery Farms hydrologist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, explain the technology behind the controlled drainage project at Farmamerica during a field day. Kevin Schulz

Drain tiles are nothing new for farmers across Minnesota, and controlled drainage is gaining traction.

Farmamerica, Minnesota’s Agricultural Interpretive Center near Waseca, is home to a drainage water management project that is led by Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center, along with partners from Discovery Farms Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The intent of this project is to quantify what is happening with water levels in the soil, with the potential to improve water quality, soil health and farm sustainability.

The system was installed last fall on a parcel of land close to 128 acres, with that parcel divided into four individual sections. Water quality and quantity are sampled and data collected by the MDA, as well as weather and field conditions. Data logging occurs daily, year-round in 15-minute intervals, and minute by minute when precipitation occurs. Water samples, tested at Minnesota Valley Testing Laboratory in New Ulm, Minn., are analyzed for total suspended solids, total phosphorus, soluble orthophosphorus, nitrate plus nitrite nitrogen, ammonia nitrogen, total Kjeldahl nitrogen and chloride.

In addition to the ability to test the water being drained from the fields, this system will also allow controlling the amount of water that remains in the soil: releasing more water when farmers want to get in the field for planting or harvesting, and preserving the soil moisture for when the crop needs it. This drainage flow is controlled by adding or removing valves in an Agri Drain Corp. structure.

“I think the potential benefit of controlled drainage is where we have more control of what water is moving off that field through tile,” says Tim Radatz, Discovery Farms coordinator. “There may be certain times through the year where we can shut off that tile drainage and try to hold some of that water back, and then, in turn, reduce the amount of water leaving the field — but also reduce the amount of nutrients that are contained in the water that is leaving that field.”

Discovery Farms Minnesota has a number of core farm partners across the state, as well as other special project sites in addition to the Farmamerica research. Visit Discovery Farms Minnesota for more information.

Warren Formo, MAWRC executive director, says in this first growing season, data of water and nutrient flow are being measured, but “What we are not doing [this first year] is, we are not controlling the levels; we’re letting all four systems free flow.”

In subsequent years, two of the systems will be controlled and two will remain free-flowing, to allow for comparison between the two approaches.

Check out this video for more information on this project:

Gain understanding

Formo adds that this project “will help us better measure and understand exactly how much water leaves the landscape” allowing for comparisons between controlled drainage and conventional drainage. “Those systems can function anytime there’s excess water in the soil profile, but also it’ll help us understand better, typically in Minnesota, how many days your tiles do not flow, that’s really important.”

The Farmamerica field drains to the LeSueur River Watershed, which Scott Matteson, Discovery Farms hydrologist with the MDA, says is one of the highest nitrogen-loading streams in Minnesota.

“So, the concern for tile drainage typically is the quantity of flow and nitrogen,” Matteson says in a video on the Discovery Farms website. “And with controlled drainage, you’re kind of addressing both of those issues. If you can reduce the amount of water or drainage from the farm field, you’re also going to reduce nitrogen load.”

According to the Discovery Farms website, the goal of this project is to increase adoption of drainage water management in southern Minnesota by focusing on demonstration, education and outreach to farmers, agricultural contractors and conservationists on this specific best management practice.

Interested parties can check out data collected from this site, as well as other Discovery Farms locations, at Users can also check data collected from a variety of other projects conducted by the MDA.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

[email protected]

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