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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Drainage Technology Can Better Manage Crops, Protect Environment

May 7, 2007

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A satellite-controlled drainage structure installed on the grounds of Ohio State University's Molly Caren Agricultural Center is providing valuable insight on what it takes to manage crop nutrients while protecting the environment.


The sub-surface drainage structure was installed in cornfields near State Route 38 by the Ohio Land Improvement Contractors Association (OLICA) during last year's Farm Science Review, along with six manually operated drainage systems. Since then Farm Science Review assistant manager Matt Sullivan has been keeping track of depth of water in the soil, amount of rainfall and electrical conductivity of water. The drainage structures are allowing Sullivan to more accurately manage crop nutrients, such as nitrogen, and keep pollutants out of the Scioto Watershed by adjusting the water table when needed through stop logs.

"Ideally a farmer wants to use every pound of nitrogen put on a crop, but we want to make sure that whatever is not used is not running off the field and polluting waterways. This technology prevents that run-off," said Sullivan. "Our ultimate goal with the drainage structures is to be able to get a return on our investment. Through this system, we also want to be able to reduce soil erosion, as well as improve water quality."

So far Sullivan is impressed with the performance of the drainage structures, especially the satellite-controlled structure.

"I really like what I'm seeing. I enjoy being able to sit in Columbus and look on the Internet and see what's going on with the fields north of London, how much rainfall we've gotten, if the system is working properly," said Sullivan.

The satellite uploads data from the controlled drainage structure every four hours, allowing farmers the advantage of real-time water management.

"Whether you're five, 10, 15, or 1,000 miles away, you have the ability to see what's going on in your soil -- to analyze that soil/water relationship, and not guess how much water you have in the soil or how much rainfall you've received," said Sullivan. "With satellite-controlled drainage structures you have that information in hours, rather than days.

The drainage control structures are installed in two soil types: sandy flood plain and heavy clay upland. Comparing the two, Sullivan is able to analyze the relationship between rainfall and depth of water in the soil, how the water table is affected and how long it takes for water to percolate through the soil.

"Such data teaches farmers how to best use the structures for nutrient management, how to keep nutrients from leaching into waterways and how to increase soil moisture content during the growing season when crops need it most," said Sullivan.

The satellite-based drainage structure, donated by Agri-Drain in Iowa, is one of only five in operation throughout the Midwest.

"As one of the first sites in Ohio tying this kind of work to conservation management, we want to provide an avenue for people to gather the best information possible to assist in making decisions based on sound design and sound science," said Sullivan. "When a raindrop hits the Molly Caren Agricultural Center we want to know what happens to that raindrop."

Sullivan said that OLICA will be back at Farm Science Review this year to install additional sub-surface drainage structures and make modifications to existing ones.

Other partners of the project include Ohio State University Extension, Ohio State Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service and Agricultural Research Service, Madison County Engineers, Madison Soil and Water Conservation District, and Trimble Navigation.

For more information, contact Matt Sullivan at (614) 292-4278 or


Candace Pollock
Matt Sullivan