Technology helps farmers maintain water quality

Pamela Steinle

It’s a little bigger than a checkbook, a little smaller than a Gopher Guide and potentially packed with more numbers and information than either.

University professor Gary Sands invented a new agriculture drainage calculator that saves users time and headaches through a partnership with Prinsco., Inc., the largest drainage pipe manufacturer in Minnesota.

The calculator will help drainage system designers determine the amount of water needed to be drained in a day based on area size and slope grade.

“Other calculators exist that do similar things,” Sands said. “I wanted to build a better mousetrap.”

A drainage system is a network of plastic pipes laid beneath the ground’s surface to funnel water away from an area. There are millions of feet of drainage pipe in the state, most of it located on southern Minnesota farms.

Sands is in the first year of a long-term study that examines the relationship between pipe depth and water quality in agricultural drainage systems.

He hypothesizes more shallowly laid pipes will increase water quality by draining less water, thus allowing nitrogen to reach the saturated soil where bacteria will convert it to nitrogen gas.

His study might help solve some disputes between farmers and environmentalists by lowering the amounts of nitrogen drained into drinking water but not compromising crop yields.

Ever since the earliest settlers staked out their land, farmers in southern Minnesota have depended on artificial drainage systems to rid fields of excess water that prevented optimum crop production.

But modern drainage systems are now combined with modern farming practices, which include adding nitrogen to the land to increase productivity.

As a result, drained water is carrying high levels of the water-soluble form of nitrogen into the nation’s water system.

Some surface water contains 15 ppm to 40 ppm of nitrogen, Sands said. Acceptable drinking water should only contain 10 ppm.

“The ideal is if we can find ways to manage farm operations in a way that doesn’t affect yield but does improve water quality,” said Norman Senjem, Mississippi River Basin coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Nitrogen is also the major contributing factor to the spread of hypoxia. Hypoxia occurs in the Gulf of Mexico, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where all aquatic life is dead because of chemical runoff.

But Sands said it’s hard for farmers to implement expensive conservation practices when their profit margins are so small.

Legislation such as the 2002 farm bill, which supports conservation practices through financial incentives, could be a way to serve everyone’s objectives, Sands said.

Jimmy Hoefs, a senior majoring in animal production systems, will be returning to Montgomery, Minn. after this year to help his father manage their 520-acre farm.

Hoefs said he knows older farmers who will stubbornly refuse to change their farming practices because they don’t like non-farmers telling them how to farm.

And he admits to being a lot like them before attending the University.

“When I came here, I became more open to other people’s views,” Hoefs said. “My viewpoint has changed a lot.”

Pamela Steinle welcomes comments at [email protected]