Evaluating water quality benefits from soil aeration

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2015: $14,877.00
Projected End Date: 04/15/2017
Grant Recipient: Winooski Natural Resources Conservation District
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Laura Dlugolecki
Winooski Natural Resources Conservation District
Sophie Sauvé
Winooski NRCD
Holly Kreiner
Winooski Natural Resources Conservation Specialist

Project leader Holly Kreiner took over for Laura Dlugolecki.

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: hay


  • Crop Production: nutrient management, aeration
  • Education and Training: display, on-farm/ranch research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: other

    Proposal abstract:

    The Winooski Natural Resources Conservation District (WNRCD) will partner with Shelburne Farms and Stone Environmental (Stone) to continue innovative research on how water quality may be improved through soil aeration. In 2012, Stone Environmental worked with a coalition of state and federal partners to initiate research across multiple locations in Vermont’s Lake Champlain Basin on a range of conservation practices, including soil aeration. Stone is examining how these practices can reduce nutrient loss and sediment runoff on agricultural fields. Funds for this research effort were not renewed at the Shelburne Farms monitoring site, cutting off an invaluable source of information needed to fully quantify the water quality benefits of soil aeration. WNRCD proposes to use NESARE funds to continue monitoring the benefits of soil aeration at Shelburne Farms and use the collected data to develop outreach materials for the agricultural community. WNRCD will also hold demonstration days for farmers based on the research findings. Although aeration of hayland is a well-known conservation practice, its adoption is not widespread in Vermont and the link between aeration and phosphorus pollution reduction is poorly understood. With NESARE funds, WNRCD can efficiently and easily build upon the substantial investment already made by Stone for monitoring infrastructure by continuing the research and providing farmers and the scientific community with better information on how to use soil aeration to manage water quality concerns on hayfields.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Research Question:

    What are the effects of soil aeration on agricultural runoff at Shelburne Farms?

    WNRCD Objectives:

      1. Partner with Stone Environmental and Shelburne Farms to support the continuation of data collection and analysis for the paired watershed study monitoring the effects of soil aeration on agricultural runoff
      1. Develop outreach materials that draw from the research at Shelburne Farms and other regionally relevant studies on soil aeration in partnership with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation
      1. Share high-quality information from research efforts and technical aerator information with the farming community
      1. Partner with Shelburne Farms to hold demonstration days for farmers on the use of the aerator
      1. Work with partner farmers, including Elwin Neill, to promote the use of conservation tillage
      1. Develop outreach display panels and materials for agricultural events based on the findings from Stone’s ongoing research
      1. Attend at least two agricultural community events to display and discuss research findings and to provide outreach about aerator use

    Several soil aeration studies in Vermont have provided the groundwork for WNRCD’s proposal. The continuation of Stone’s monitoring efforts at Shelburne Farms is fundamentally different from other aeration studies previously conducted in Vermont. WNRCD is specifically interested in how aerator use affects water quality, which differs from previous NESARE funded aerator studies. In 2010, the Poultney-Mettowee Natural Resources Conservation District (PMNRCD) received a NESARE grant to study the effectiveness of aerator use on manure incorporation; the study examined crop yields to examine economic impacts of aerator use. In 2011, PMNRCD received another NESARE grant to evaluate the use of aerators on alfalfa stands for manure incorporation. Both studies provide valuable information about the practice of manure incorporation through soil aeration, but neither study included methods to measure runoff. Research designed to monitor runoff from agricultural fields is in high demand, but has often been cost-prohibitive and complicated to set-up. Stone’s ongoing research efforts have provided $45,000 of monitoring equipment already installed at each of the monitoring sites, including Shelburne Farms. The investment of this monitoring equipment provides a unique opportunity to cost-effectively collect important data that will be used to directly inform farmers about the incorporation of an innovative conservation practice.

    Marli Rupe of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (VT DEC), managed two aerator projects funded by NESARE. Rupe has agreed to work with WNRCD to incorporate findings from her work into any new outreach materials developed by WNRCD. The study findings support the use of soil aeration as a way to reduce soil compaction and improve soil health; this information and data will be a prominent component of all WNRCD outreach materials developed from this proposed project. An important finding in each of the previous soil aeration studies in Vermont is that farmers are hesitant to try an innovative practice like soil aeration until they have seen it done elsewhere, supporting WNRCD’s need to hold demonstration days and to work with our partner farmers on the promotion of conservation tillage.

    WNRCD has developed this proposal from a foundation of work that Stone has completed to maintain a runoff-monitoring site at Shelburne Farms. Stone’s study began in 2012 as a paired watershed study; the first year of the study was a calibration period to understand the relationship between the two watersheds. Because the summer of 2014 was relatively dry, insufficient data was collected at the site. Funding at the Shelburne Farms monitoring site is slated to cease at the end of 2014. The substantial investment at the site would be a missed opportunity if the monitoring is not continued. WNRCD is requesting funding to support the continuation of these studies as a way to acquire important and relevant data.

    Data Collection in Shelburne:

    There is significant infrastructure already in place for runoff data collection. Runoff from the two watersheds in Shelburne were been calibrated during the 2012 and 2013 field seasons. A brief description of the monitoring equipment in place follows (more details are included in Stone’s QAPP attached as a supporting document):

    To capture runoff at each monitoring station, a hydraulic device known as an H-flume has been installed. The flume is bolted to a rectangular plywood approach channel. Plywood wingwalls embedded at least 60 cm in the ground were installed to direct runoff into the flume approach channel. The approach channel is mounted to the wingwall such that the opening is nearly flush with the ground. Through the life of the monitoring program, the flume has been kept level through regular adjustments using a system of turnbuckles.

    To collect water flow data, an ultrasonic water level sensor (ISCO 2110 Ultrasonic Flow Module) is installed in the flume to continuously measure stage (water level). Level data is converted to flow rate based on the established hydraulic properties of the flume. These data are used for generation of runoff event hydrographs and total event discharge, and in calculation of pollutant export.

    To collect water chemistry data, an ISCO 6712 autosampler has been programmed to pump subsamples of runoff water on a flow-proportional basis into bulk (10-L polyethylene) sample containers. Runoff samples are collected through a screened ~1 cm intake line from a mixing trough that receives the H-flume discharge.

    Water temperature and conductivity will be measured continuously in the runoff stream using a

    HOBO® U24-001 Conductivity Data Logger installed in the mixing trough in the runoff channel below the flume.

    Maintenance Requirements:

    Before data collection can continue in Spring 2015, maintenance will be required on the equipment. Any remaining ice must be cleared from flumes and splash pans, flumes will be leveled, rain gages will be calibrated, any minor work to fill rodent holes or recaulk seams will need to be completed. The station will have to be restocked with supplies, forms and labels, conductivity sensors and non-recording manual rain gages will be reinstalled. This pre-season maintenance will be completed by Stone Environmental.

    Data will be collected from approximately April 1 –November 30, weather permitting. The site will be visited monthly to perform routine maintenance, download instruments, and restock supplies. This support will be completed by Stone staff. After each rain event, runoff samples will have to be collected and delivered to the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation laboratory in Burlington, this duty will be completed by Shelburne Farms. Event composite samples will be analyzed for total phosphorus (TP), total dissolved phosphorus (TDP), total nitrogen (TN), total dissolved nitrogen (TDN), chloride (Cl), and total suspended solids (TSS) concentration. We will monitor up to 20 runoff events (weather permitting) during the 2015 field season. Experiences of the farmer and observations by project staff in the field will also be documented and included in an assessment of overall performance of soil aeration. Stone will continue to store the runoff data and incorporate it into their existing analyses.

    Data Analysis

    Analysis of all field runoff samples is being conducted by the VT DEC laboratory, stationed at the University of Vermont. All water samples are analyzed in accordance with the standard methods of the VT DEC Laboratory.

    All project data collected will be archived in original form (digital downloads, laboratory reports) and organized in databases and Excel spreadsheets by Stone. Transcribed data will be checked for errors between original source and files used for reporting and analysis.


    Data analysis will continue per the original study protocols, outlined in the QAPP and Stone will assume all responsibility for the continuation of data analysis. Al statistical analyses will be conducted using JMP statistical software.






    Development of Outreach Materials


    WNRCD staff will work with Marli Rupe of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and Dana Bishop of Shelburne Farms to develop farmer-friendly outreach materials including handouts and displays for public events to support the use of the aerator. These materials will incorporate previous soil aeration research and experience. WNRCD will coordinate the development of these materials and work with local farmers, including Elwin Neill to make the materials relevant to farmers by answering specific local questions and concerns.




    WNRCD will incorporate these materials into comprehensive agricultural outreach visits to farms and share the resources with other Conservation Districts throughout Vermont. We will also present our display at a minimum of two agricultural events (field days, farmer consortium meetings, Vermont Farm Show).




    Hold On-Farm Demonstration Days


    WNRCD owns a 14 ¼ foot Gen-Til aerator that it rents to local farmers. We will work with Elwin Neill, a farmer that helps maintain and store the aerator when it is not being rented, and with Dana Bishop of Shelburne Farms to coordinate at least one demonstration day for local interested farmers. Farmers and agricultural professionals, including Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) Soil Conservationists, UVM Extension employees and others who have aerator experience will be encouraged to attend the demonstration day to provide helpful insight and answer other participant’s questions. At the events, WNRCD will share preliminary results of the runoff study, provide background information, and answer questions about the aerator and demonstrate its use, maintenance and transportation requirements. WNRCD will also discuss aerating techniques in different soil types and conditions (e.g. rocky fields, alfalfa vs. hay).




    The data collection and analysis outlined above support the continuation of monitoring the effectiveness of soil aeration on agricultural runoff. These steps are critical to meeting our research goals. The development of outreach materials and demonstration days is essential to WNRCD’s mission to provide outreach about conservation practices to the agricultural community and to reach farmers not yet familiar with using an aerator. These outreach efforts will be strengthened by completing the proposed data collection and analysis.


    This project will be completed over a two year period. Data collection will occur from April 2015 until November 2015 (weather permitting). As data collection and the support and maintenance of that effort are underway, WNRCD staff will begin coordinating with partners to develop effective outreach materials. Our intent is to incorporate the findings of the research into some of the outreach materials; therefore some materials will not be developed until after data analysis is complete in the winter of 2015. WNRCD and partners including Shelburne Farms will hold an aerator demonstration day in 2015.


    The data analysis will occur over the winter (December 2015-February 2016). After the analysis is complete, WNRCD staff will work to incorporate the research findings into outreach materials, completing all outreach materials by May 2016. WNRCD staff will exhibit findings from the study and general information to promote the use of soil aeration as a conservation practice at two Vermont agricultural events, including the Vermont Farm Show in January 2016 and another wide-reaching event; possibilities include the Addison County Field and Fair Days and the Champlain Valley Fair. WNRCD will also bring the newly developed outreach materials and information to other smaller gatherings of farmers including farmer coalition meetings. Throughout the duration of this project, WNRCD will work with Elwin Neill to coordinate and promote the use of the aerator on farms. All work will be completed by December 2016.




    Proposed schedule:




    3/1/15 - 3/31/15


    Maintenance on monitoring equipment before data collection begins (Stone)


    04/01/15 - 11/30/2015


    Continuous data collection period (sustained by installed equipment)


    Precipitation event-based visits to the study site to retrieve samples (Dana Bishop, WNRCD staff)


    Monthly maintenance (Stone)




    06/2015-7/2015 (WNRCD staff)


    Begin coordinating with partners and other experts to develop outreach materials.


    Speak to past aerator users about their experiences


    Contact farmers who have inquired about the aerator through the District but did not use it, discuss barriers to use and learn about what type of information would be useful to them


    Begin planning aerator demonstration day and workshop for the fall (collaborate with partner farmers)




    9/2015 (WNRCD staff)


    Develop finished outreach products including handouts for farmers, lists of frequently asked questions with answers, handouts with information concerning environmental and economic benefits, tabling and display materials for events. Any available preliminary data from the research at Shelburne Farms will be incorporated into the outreach materials.






    Hold an aerator demonstration day (WNRCD and Dana Bishop, Shelburne Farms)






    Analyze collected data (Stone)




    01/2016-12/2016 (WNRCD staff)


    Exhibit/present findings and outreach materials at the Vermont Farm Show


    Exhibit findings at other agricultural event


    Meet with farmer coalition groups and attend field days to talk about the study findings






    Incorporate data from analysis into existing outreach materials (WNRCD staff)




    05/2016 Complete all outreach products (WNRCD staff)




    12/15/2016 Complete all projects and present NESARE with final report (WNRCD staff)


    WNRCD’s goal is to make the findings from this research effort and previous research on soil aeration readily available to the agricultural community and to partners who work daily with farmers. Any outreach materials created, workshops, or demonstration days held are intended to inform farmers, but may also be useful for the farm-educator community. WNRCD will work with partners, including Marli Rupe, VT DEC, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (VT AAFM) and farmers who are experienced with the use of the aerator to develop outreach materials including general aerator information handouts, lists of frequently asked questions and answers, handouts with information concerning environmental and economic benefits of soil aeration, and tabling and display materials describing research and general aerator information.


    WNRCD is developing a comprehensive agricultural outreach program for farmers in the LCB. We aim to meet with small and medium-sized farms to discuss pending regulatory changes that will affect these farms and to suggest conservation practices. Soil aeration outreach materials developed through this project will be printed and distributed to farmers during such farm visits. These materials will also be brought along to any farm visit we make (to take soil samples, examine a conservation issue, etc.). WNRCD will make these materials available at any agriculturally relevant outreach or tabling event that we attend. Additionally, we will make these materials available to our NRCS partners to distribute to interested farmers that they work with.


    WNRCD will develop and send out press releases to local newspapers within Chittenden, Washington and Orange Counties to promote the aerator demonstration workshop day. WNRCD will also advertise the aerator demonstration day in the Farm Services Agency Newsletter, the UVM Extension Agricultural Newsletter and other agriculture-related listservs.

    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.