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Conservation drainage explained

July 27, 2012
The Journal

By Fritz Busch

Staff Writer

SLEEPY EYE - A farmer explained the virtues and challenges of a drainage water management system that he installed on his farm between Tracy and Milroy on Thursday evening at a conservation drainage meeting sponsored by the Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River in Sleepy Eye.

Brian Hicks, who installs Agri Drain systems, said his father's passion about agricultural drainage got him interested in the system.

"My dad always thought we should be able to irrigate with our tile," Hicks said. "When I spend about $750 on each acre of corn, I want to increase yield and keep soil nutrients if I can. It also means not dumping them on somebody else down river."

Farmers can investigate controlled drainage systems and get cost sharing by working with their local NRCS office, according to Hicks. Project costs are about $100 more per acre than installing conventional tile systems.

"When we had a 10-inch rain in 2010, I pulled back the drain gates and moved lots of water in a hurry," said Hicks, who uses controlled drainage lines as big as 18 inches in diameter.

He has also regulated field water table levels to reach the bottom of plant roots throughout the growing season.

Hicks said the system did wonders for his wheat yield.

"My dad could hardly believe it. It really was fun harvesting 75 bushel per acre wheat," Hicks said.

Farming Millinton Loam soil near the meandering Cottonwood River, Hicks said his father often hauls large rocks around, adding rip-wrap to the shoreline to prevent stream bank erosion.

Hicks said his controlled drainage helped him better deal with a May 8 gully-washer rainfall that has occurred on the same date three of the past eight years. Conventionally drained fields experienced more problems.

Knowing exactly when to open his drain gates presents a challenge.

"There should be a spreadsheet for it, but I haven't seen one yet," Hicks said.

Several farmers at the meeting asked about how to operate a controlled drainage system in Brown County where there are numerous county ditch systems.

"I don't deal with that, but I suppose you'd have to put them in separately," Hicks said.

Farmers got into detailed discussions on how to deal with many local, state and federal agencies.

"They're not all singing out of the same hymnal ... and often disagree on what to do," Hicks said. "It can be frustrating."

Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River Executive Director Scott Sparlin said controlled drainage systems have huge potential and new technology.

"Most conservation and environmental people either don't know about it or aren't excited about it," Sparlin said. Dealing with such systems in some places may require sweeping changes to agricultural agency regulations.

(Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at



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