Michigan Farmer Logo

Funding backs research on ‘Edge-of-Field’ drainage systems

The goal is to better understand tile-line movement of nutrients in water and develop best management plans for drainage control structures.

August 30, 2023

5 Min Read
Black corrugated water drainage pipe on a farm field
STUDYING DRAINAGE: Ehsan Ghane, MSU biosystems and agricultural engineering researcher, is an expert in agricultural water management systems and water quality. He recently received funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to examine the efficacy of conservation drainage practices to reduce nutrient loss from subsurface-drained farms. JJ Gouin/Getty Images

With the backing of a $1.2 million grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, scientist Ehsan Ghane and his research team will continue a project called “Edge-of-Field” with the objective to investigate the effectiveness of conservation drainage practices.

Ghane, an associate professor and MSU Extension specialist in the department of biosystems and agricultural engineering, will work with farmers and agricultural stakeholders across Michigan to explore practices he hopes will assist Michigan farmers in abiding by what he calls “the golden rule of drainage — drain only what is necessary for crop production and not a drop more.”

For about two decades, annual algae blooms — fed primarily by nutrient runoff from sources such as agricultural fields, animal facilities and wastewater treatment plants — have developed in the western portion of Lake Erie. Blooms of blue-green algae called cyanobacteria can produce toxins that can kill fish, mammals and birds, and can cause human illness.

Supported by partnerships with MDARD and MSU AgBioResearch, Ghane’s goal is educating stakeholders to help increase the performance and profitability of subsurface drainage systems, while reducing harmful water-quality impacts.

“There is good understanding and best management practices around addressing the movement of surface runoff from farmland, but this is not so true for water moving through tile lines,” says James Johnson, MDARD Environmental Stewardship Division director. “The important research being done by Ehsan Ghane and his team at MSU is helping us to better understand tile-line movement of nutrients in water. This will allow for the development of a best management plan that advocates for drainage control structures, as well as a management system for controlling the release of water from those structures.”

ESD plans to use information gleaned from the study to develop farmer education to better control nutrient and water releases in the short term, and ultimately use these plans as part of the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program verification process, Johnson adds. 

The grant will fund continued data collection and management implementation on three partner farms in the River Raisin watershed. Ghane’s project is testing the effectiveness of two types of water management systems — controlled drainage and saturated buffers — to see how they are best implemented and how much phosphorus can be reduced and kept out of surface water.

“We want to show how effective these practices are and show farmers how beneficial they are, so we can encourage people to implement them,” Ghane says. “We eventually want farmers to adopt these practices voluntarily to improve water quality and their crop yield.”

Partnering with Michigan farmers

The project consists of two sites with controlled drainage and one site with a saturated buffer. The project will monitor nitrate, total phosphorus and dissolved reactive phosphorus in subsurface drainage discharge from each drainage system to compare to a control field consisting of free drainage systems.

“Our research is conducted on privately owned farmland, and we partner closely with the landowners, the farmers and the producers,” Ghane says. “We share data with them, and they share their farming practices with us, so we both learn from each other. Our partnership with the farmers is a critical component of this research.”

Controlled drainage — the process of adjusting the outlet elevation of a drainage system to control the volume of water leaving the field and reduce nutrient loss — provides the capability to better manage water resources on the farm.

Saturated buffers use the same principles as controlled drainage systems, but in addition the system intercepts water from the tile drainage and reroutes and treats it through soils and vegetation before exiting into an adjacent waterway.

Data collection from the previous five years on partner farms has shown as much as 25% phosphorus loss reduction using these drainage methods compared to control fields. Researchers believe these methods have potential to capture even more than the initial studies indicate.

MDARD partnership key to future success

Joe Kelpinski serves as a program manager for MDARD’s ESD, leading the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program. His team works closely with Michigan’s agriculture communities and commodity groups to “promote agricultural growth in a way that's going to be protective of the environment and specifically of our state’s water resources.”

“Our mission is to work with farms of all types, size and commodities to promote a voluntary, proactive environmental program to protect the environment and our water,” says Kelpinski, who provides guidance to the state’s agricultural communities on implementation of effective drainage and conservation methods and techniques. “Michigan is a water rich state, and the Great Lakes are part of our economy, culture and identity, so it’s vital for the state to support efforts to protect the lakes. MDARD appreciate the ongoing research partnership with MSU.”

Variations in rainfall, temperature and numerous other factors impact nutrient loads entering surface water each year. More years of data collection will lead to more effective practices being implemented with the goal of ultimately reducing the phosphorus load entering Lake Erie by 40%.

“I know everyone would love to see the algae bloom issues fixed yesterday,” Kelpinski says. “I want them fixed yesterday, but the reality is, Ehsan is doing the fundamental research to answer questions to help us make real change in Michigan’s portion of the Western Lake Erie Basin or in Saginaw Bay. This partnership helps us get a deeper and connected handle on water quality issues that are so important to us all.

“Michiganders identify with the Great Lakes. It's woven into our culture and it’s a fundamental piece of who we are, and so keeping the lakes clean is important to everyone and we’re committed to making a real, substantial difference.”

Source: MSU

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like