A few weeks ago, the majority of the continental United States saw an onslaught of snow. It’s January, so farmers in the American heartland are not worried about their crops; they won’t even consider planting seeds for corn or soybeans until April at the earliest. The Winter is cold and no one is bothered when inches of snow falls during the first few weeks of the year.

But snow can still be a major problem, if drainage is also a problem.

Many people only think of drainage in terms of rain. A heavy rainstorm during the Spring can obviously drown seeds and make the muddy land unworkable if there is no drainage to guide excess water away. But snow is, after all, another form of water. And once it melts down from its more attractive, physical state, that water will remain.

This problem is especially troubling for farmers, who apply manure during Winter as a fertilizing agent.



Cold Reality

First, precipitation waters down any agent you apply to your land. No matter how well-planned your drainage system is, water flow will take manure with it. And if it’s a poor drainage system, it takes the manure exactly where no one wants it: The nearest watershed.

There are two major reasons why farmers should be concerned if their runoff is dirtying the local watershed (aside from the aforementioned loss of fertilizing effectiveness).

The first is an ethical one: Farmers and others should avoid adding unnecessary nitrates to the water supply so that we can decrease aquatic dead zones, like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrates reduce oxygen in water—a process also known as hypoxia—which in turn causes die-offs of fish, aquatic plants, and other organisms.

The second reason to care is both a legal and financial one: Farmers can be held responsible for runoff from their land that ends up in the water supply. Wisconsin, Ohio and Alabama were just three states that dealt large fines for runoff during 2017. These included individual fines of $50,000 and $30,000.

The Solution

At the same time, timing such influxes of heavy weather along with your fertilization schedule is difficult. There are a number of installations you can make on your land to improve the efficiency of your drainage, and many states offer funds to help farmers take green initiatives such as these.

One option is a woodchip bioreactor. These are trenches, full of wood chips, which release carbon and bacteria that process the nitrates remaining in the water. The newly-cleaned water then moves on to the watershed. A similar idea is to construct an artificial wetland, or saturated buffer, between your drain-flow and the watershed. Wetlands are nature’s natural form of nitrate removal, after all.

A final solution is to construct a grass waterway through your property. Any constructed waterway will assist in drainage, but the grass in this version is important: These plants will gobble up the extra nitrates before the drainage can reach the stream. Although this may sound like an obstacle for farm equipment, but if they are constructed on a graduated slope, tractors and combines can drive across them!