The Huronview drainage demonstration farm near Clinton continues to aggregate data from its numerous tillage drainage systems.
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“People are, like, ‘tell us whether it’s working,’” said project co-ordinator Mel Luymes. “Again, please wait. It’s going to take years for us to get a good answer from this. I’m glad we put it in when we did, and I wish we’d put it in 20 years earlier, because now we’d have answers. But we’re still gonna have to wait.”
Why it matters: The site is one of the first in Ontario to test controlled drainage, the ability to turn tiles on and off depending on needed moisture, on a slope.
The project could be a step forward for drainage in Ontario, where most controlled drainage systems are built on even ground. Luymes explained why it has been difficult to build systems like this in the past.
“Conventionally, how people tile is just in straight lines. But on slopes, it’s really hard. You could never back up water without blowing the whole system, because there’s too much head pressure.”
Most of Ontario is not suited to simple flat-surface tile drainage systems.
“Only two per cent of Ontario was naturally flat enough that you could just retrofit an installation with a control gate,” Luymes said. “That meant the whole rest of Ontario could not benefit from control drainage until now.”
Mari Veliz, healthy watersheds manager with the Ausable-Bayfield Conservation Authority, said slope of the terrain was not the only challenge posed by the demonstration farm’s geography.
“The other thing that we found when we looked at that particular site is there’s quite a bit of hard, impervious pavement adjacent to the field,” said Veliz. “And so, water running off of that impervious surface was causing gullies across the fields.”
Several County of Huron administration buildings are on the site.
“Changing how that water intersected with the fields with erosion control measures, such as riprap, really also helped with reducing the surface water, but certainly bringing the water from the surface to a tile in a more controlled way did help with the gullies that we saw.”
The project at Huronview officially started pre-work in 2019, but Luymes said the idea took root long before that.
It started when Land Improvement Contractors of Ontario (LICO) hosted a session with Illinois-based drainage system designer Jeremy Meiners.
He was “designing systems where you can do control drainage on a slope,” Luymes said, “and control drainage, especially in the States, especially on flat ground, can be kind of common. But the hardest thing is to do it on a slope.
“And so LICO had him come up, and I was at that session, and I was, like … this is really interesting. Who will be crazy enough to try it?”
Luymes said she was approached by someone from Huron County who had taken an interest in the idea and asked her to write a grant application. It was successful.
“It was Huron County’s land. A lot of it was funded by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership and also, we had industry support, like tonnes of industry support.”
The project also had backing from the Huron Soil and Crop Improvement Association.
“I think it’s important to stress that this project was so collaborative, and it’s actually a miracle that it got done in such short order when we had such diverse partners there.”
Veliz said local farmers were supportive of using the Huronview property for experimentation.
Luymes said she felt the venture was mutually beneficial.
“This was all public money, let’s just say, and it was a collective venture that we could all learn from. That was our goal, was to make a project that we could really learn from in terms of control drainage.”
Luymes said they began to use the site for many projects and experiments that control water movement on farms, including contours and terraces.
“It’s kind of a side-by-side of a conventional system versus a contoured and controlled system versus a not drain system at all.”
One of the main benefits to a controlled system is its potential to improve water quality.
“So, say you reduced the water output from a system by 40 per cent. That’s also a 40 per cent reduction in phosphorus and nitrate loading, just right then and there,” said Luymes.
“If there’s no tile drainage, we have so much surface erosion that it’s a major issue for water quality. So, putting tile drainage in is the first thing that you can do to improve water quality.”
Veliz said she has already seen improvements in reduced erosion from surface water and a lower water table that allows earlier field work.
Though the water quality aspect could be beneficial, Luymes said the impact on yields is uncertain.
A controlled drainage system requires some learning, because “If it’s not managed properly, it could also reduce yields because you could oversaturate the soil when it should have been draining.”
Unconventional tile placement is not a quick retrofit, Luymes added, and unless it proved to consistently increase crop yield, it would likely be cost prohibitive.
The system at Huronview uses control gates to regulate outflow from the tile — 21 of them at $500 to $1,200 per gate.
Because of this, Luymes said it is important to test the system in a controlled environment rather than expect farmers to try it themselves.
“It was a lot of risk … too much that I would want to put on any farmer’s shoulders,” she said. “I would feel terrible if I’d encouraged a farmer to do that, to put all their own money into it, and then it didn’t work.”