Automated Drainage Water Management for Improved Precision, Yield, and Water Quality

Progress report for FNE22-004

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2022: $29,995.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2024
Grant Recipient: Twin Cedar Ag
Region: Northeast
State: Delaware
Project Leader:
Chris Breeding
Twin Cedar Ag
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Project Information


Due to weather conditions and late harvest, we have been unable to complete our project. We anticipate the project components to be installed by February 15, 2023. 


Update: 3/13/2023

Project installation was completed on February 9, 2023. A pop-up field day was held on February 7, 2023 during the installation of the project. Approximately 30 producers, government officials and local soil conservation staff attended.The attached images show the installation of the drainage project. They also show field day participants participating in field day events. (1)

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to compare the effectiveness of the Automated Drainage Water Management system versus the Manual Drainage Water Management system. The project also seeks to measure the impact of the DWM on crop growth, aerated soil root zone, nitrogen load reduction and overall water quality impact. 


The overarching goal/objective of the DWM projects are to help advance Delaware's WIP III implementation goals. DWM helps reduce total nitrogen (TN) and DWM projects are credited with 30% TN load reduction annually. The DWM project is located in both the Nanticoke River watershed and the Marshyhope sub watershed. This project will install subsurface drainage tile lines in agricultural fields following a certified DWM plan. The project within this proposal has drainage tile designs optimized for DWM> The Chesapeake Bay Program has approved DWM as a best management practice. Delaware has a 3,513,517 lbs. of nitrogen load reduction that must be achieved by 2025 and this project will help achieve a portion of that load reduction goal. It is estimated that the nitrogen load reduction from this project will be 507.33 lbs. /yr., DWM is credited annually, but has 10 year practice standard per United States Department of Agriculture-Natural Resource Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) and the Chesapeake Bay Program, thus totaling 5073.3 lbs. over the 10-year project life. Agriculture is the largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, but the agricultural sector provides the most cost-effective options to reduce nutrient and sediment loss to improve water quality. Drainage water management controls the volume and timing of drainage to ensure there is sufficient drainage for agricultural production while reducing negative water quality impacts through reduced water loss (load reduction) and better nitrogen utilization by crops, and denitrification within the soil profile. DWM projects use structures for water control to manage subsurface drainage tile lines in agricultural fields following a certified DWM plan.
DWM systems within a conservation systems approach offers significant potential to improve water quality as well as enhance farm economic viability via increased crop yields. Appropriately engineered, installed and managed subsurface drainage also helps build long-term resilience to agricultural land by helping reduce the impacts of variable and intense precipitation events by reducing flood risk and protecting crops and soil from inundation that can kill crops and cause compaction and loss of soil health. Oversaturated soils during harvest was seen in 2019 and 2021 throughout the Delmarva peninsula causing delayed harvest, stuck equipment, compacted soils and crop loss. This system, managed properly should allow farmers like myself to manage sediment loads, nitrogen loads while harvesting on time, maintaining equipment properly, have less soil compaction and great crop yields.


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  • Tim Rosen - Technical Advisor


Materials and methods:

This project will compare the yield impacts, water quality impacts (nitrate-nitrogen concentration and load), and water volumes managed using manual drainage water management (DWM) and automated drainage water management (ADWM).

This project will compare an automated drainage water management project that manages 39.2 acres of tile drainage and a manual drainage water management structure that manages  38.9 acres of tile drainage.  The fields are adjacent to each other and follow the same cropping systems, have similar soils, and will follow nutrient management plans so exact nutrient applications will be known.

Water quality will be assessed using grab samples that are collected every week if there is water in the system.  Weekly sampling should be able to provide estimated nitrate-nitrogen loads with a 90% probability that the calculated nitrate-nitrogen loads are within ±15% of the “true” nitrate-nitrogen load (Wang et al., 2003).  Nitrate-nitrogen samples will be collected on site from the water controls structures near the outlets of the manual drainage water management project and the automated drainage water management project.  Samples will be filtered on site and stored in 50 ml plastic bottles.  Samples will be frozen and taken monthly to a local analytical lab (University of Maryland, University of Delaware, or AgroLab) to analyze nitrate-nitrogen concentration.

Water discharge volume will be calculated using water pressure transducers and calibrated v-notch weirs.  The automated drainage water management structure has an installed water level logger so no additional equipment is needed. The manual drainage water management structure will have an In-Situ Level TROLL 400 water depth logger installed that will track water height (inches) on a 5 minute interval.  Discharge volume will be calculated as water height over the v-notch following Christianson et al. 2019;

Q = 1.44H2.28, with Q in gallons per minute and H in inches

Nitrate-nitrogen load will be calculated from nitrate-nitrogen concentration multiplied by the discharge volume.  Discharge volume managed within the field will be calculated as water elevation in the water control structures multiplied by the acres managed in the field.

Yield will be tracked by a harvest monitor that is part of the combine.  Yield data will be mapped using geospatial software to compare between DWM and ADWM sites and years.

All comparisons will be made between the two treatments (DWM and ADWM) to describe differences in nitrate-nitrogen concentration and load, water volume that leaves the system, water volume managed within the field, and yield impacts.



Rosen, Timothy, and Laura Christianson. 2017. "Performance of Denitrifying Bioreactors at Reducing Agricultural Nitrogen Pollution in a Humid Subtropical Coastal Plain Climate" Water 9, no. 2: 112.

Christianson, L.E, Christianson, R.D., Lipka, A.E., Bailey, S.B., Chandrasoma, J., McCoy, C., Preza Fontes, G, Roh, J., Sanchez Bustamante Bailon, A.P., Wickramarathne, N.M, and R.A Cooke. 2019. "Calibration of Stainless Steel-Edged V-Notch Weir Stop Logs for Water Level Control Structures" Applied Engineering in Agriculture, 35(5), 745-749.


Research results and discussion:

Click the link below to view the initial water sampling data. Water samples are collected weekly and run periodically. 

Yield data was collected. We are experiencing technical difficulties with obtaining the yield data from the combines computer. 

Water Sampling Data

Research conclusions:

Due to weather conditions and late harvest, we have been unable to complete our project. We anticipate the project components to be installed by February 15, 2023. 

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

1 Tours
3 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

30 Farmers participated
90 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

April 4- Conservation Drainage Network MeetingFeb. 2- Pop-up Field DayProducers are analyzing the map of the tilling project. They are gathering and understanding of the plan for water flow and drainage into drainage ditches.Senator Tom Carper and Kasey Taylor, State Conservationist speak with Chris and Karen Breeding about the challenges and benefits they have experienced throughout the implementation of the drainage project.  Tim Rosen explains and shows field day participants a piece of the tile with sock over it as an example of what makes up the underground drainage tilling.

February 7, 2023- Pop-up Field Day for producers. 

April 4, 2023- hosted the Conservation Drainage Network 2023 Annual Meeting

August 23, 2023- NRCS New Planner training

August 28, 2023- Senator Tom Carper and staff tour

Learning Outcomes

Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

Due to weather conditions and late harvest, we have been unable to complete our project. We anticipate the project components to be installed by February 15, 2023. 

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Due to weather conditions and late harvest, we have been unable to complete our project. We anticipate the project components to be installed by February 15, 2023. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.