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Easier ways to install, maintain modern grass waterwaysEasier ways to install, maintain modern grass waterways

You may need more than no-till and cover crops to control concentrated water flow.

Don Donovan

May 18, 2021

3 Min Read
area of young cornfield where rain waters pond
TOO MUCH FLOW: Water concentrates too heavily during rain events in this area of the field. It is a candidate for a grass waterway. Tom J. Bechman

A farm is a complex system. Different soils, crops and management styles come together to hopefully produce a profit. This complex system provides complex resource concerns that must be addressed — you guessed it — as a system!

You hear frequently about no-till and cover crops. Many times, other practices are needed to complete the system and address all resource concerns. 

Concentrated erosion or gully erosion is frequently an infiltration issue more than a runoff issue. No-till and cover crops develop a healthier soil that will infiltrate water better and store it for use during dry periods.

However, there are times when the concentrated flow requires a more aggressive approach. That is where a grassed waterway comes into play. If you have areas of concentrated water flow causing concern, first try seeding wheat or cereal rye into those areas after harvest. See if a temporary cover over winter will reduce soil loss, or if you need to go forward with a grassed waterway.

In concentrated-flow areas, temporary cover will be needed every year. Grassed waterways can be a challenge to farm around with large equipment, so it makes sense to only install them as a last resort. 

If you feel that you need a permanent grassed waterway, there are a few design options that may make them easier to farm around. With modern large equipment, it is much easier if the waterway is relatively shallow with a design depth of about a foot. Depending on the drainage area, this could make the design width wider.

Also, to make them easier to cross, the side slopes should be flattened out, which also will result in a wider waterway. A wider waterway may take up more acreage, but it is worth the trade-offs if this design allows you to easily cross the waterway when conditions are fit. 

Maintenance issues

Once you have a waterway installed, like any other permanent conservation practice, it will require maintenance to ensure that it continues functioning correctly. A major contributor to problems with grassed waterways is end rows along each side. Many times, this results in water running down those end rows instead of continuing into the waterway, potentially forming new gullies alongside the waterway.

With large planters, row clutches make it much easier to plant into a waterway and have them shut off at the waterway edge. Another common issue, whether you use a retailer or do your own spraying, is herbicide kill along waterways. Be prepared to reseed your waterway back to design seeding width as necessary so it functions correctly. 

A final maintenance necessity is to regularly remove the sediment that has run into your waterway. This is soil lost from other parts of the field that is collecting in the waterway. Regular sediment removal maintains the waterway’s original dimensions. 

Grass waterways not only control erosion but also filter sediment and nutrients prior to runoff entering a stream or other water course. If you are experiencing gully erosion from concentrated water flow and temporary seeding over the winter doesn’t improve the issue, consider installing a grassed waterway. Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service or soil and water conservation district office for technical assistance in solving your problem. Remember, it takes a system to solve all the resource concerns on your farm. 

Donovan is a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Soil Conservation Service. He writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.

About the Author(s)

Don Donovan

Don Donovan is a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service based in Parke County, Ind. He is a contributor to the Salute Soil Health column that appears regularly in Indiana Prairie Farmer on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.

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