Friday, April 20, 2012
But after a couple of dry springs and a predicted drought, is there still a need for drainage?
Rob Burtonshaw of Warwickshire-based contractor Farm Services may have a vested interest, but he makes a strong case for the benefits of land drainage, especially as crop input costs continue to rise.
"Whatever your opinion on climate change, it seems we are still getting roughly the same amount of rainfall, just at different times," he points out. "With pressure on farms to be more efficient and use less labour, if you can get back on the land earlier in the spring after a successful drainage project, then so much the better."
Mr Burtonshaw acknowledges it is tempting to spend extra cash from better grain prices on a new combine and other shiny machinery.
"But it's pointless if the land lies too wet at harvest and other critical times of the year to use it, or if yields are limited by poor drainage," he says.
He reckons the fundamental benefit of installing a land drainage system - to shift excessive water from the surface and soil profile - is as important now as ever.
"Well-drained soils maximise crop growth rates and therefore yields, whereas wet soils produce anaerobic conditions, resulting in poor root development and smaller plants that are more susceptible to disease and competition," Mr Burtonshaw says. "Spring crops grown in poor-draining soils produce shallow roots, leaving them vulnerable to drought conditions in the summer."
It may sound odd at first, but effective land drainage can also help combat drought, he adds. "By improving soil structure to reduce surface run-off and enable the ground to 'hold' as much water as possible, fields susceptible to drought can be more productive."
Despite the decline in land drainage work that began with the ending of subsidies, there is still a contracting industry ready to provide expert advice and scheme design, as well as the specialist machinery involved. But companies operating in the sector have had to adapt.
In leaner times, Farm Services diversified by setting up a sportsfield division and taking on civil works like pipeline installation. The company is also working farther afield, going well beyond the original Warwickshire client base when Mr Burtonshaw's grandfather joined the company in 1957.
Bulging job files attest to the level of repeat business the company achieves: "We often go back to farms that have not been drained for many years and the improvements can be significant," he says. "We also take on new projects for existing customers who purchase more land."
The approach can be cautious - farmers will often experiment by having a small patch drained to evaluate the results. Usually, they then ask the drainage team to return the following year to do more fields. Demand is such that last year 80% of Farm Services' workload was on agricultural land.
As with most agricultural machinery, new technology is revolutionising the way that drainage schemes are designed and recorded, and the way the high-cost specialised machinery is operated. Mr Burtonshaw is studying the latest equipment and techniques used globally this year as a Nuffield scholar.
"Traditionally, every metre of drainage pipe installed has been measured with a wheel, with these measurements then used for invoicing and for generating completion plans that show where the drains are laid for future reference," he explains. "Now, hand-drawn plans have been replaced with AutoCAD drawings on a computer and measurements are made using a GPS system, which accurately records the 'as laid' position, as well as the quantities of materials used."
But this is only scratching the surface, it seems. In the USA, GPS is replacing the laser controls normally used to create the gradient planes that ensure trenchers lay drains with the correct fall, and this will be an important part of his study.
"GPS offers accuracy at least as good as lasers, if not better, and the equipment is faster and easier to set up," says Mr Burtonshaw.
Mastenbroek trenchers built in Lincolnshire are the mainstay of the business. They need to be highly productive to make the job as cost effective as possible, and to fit sufficient workload into a tight post-harvest window when most drainage installation is carried out. The largest trencher operated by Farm Services can lay at least 1,500m of pipe a day.
Materials are also being covered by Mr Burtonshaw's Nuffield study because Farm Services is already investigating the use of recycled material to use as backfill on top of the pipes. "It needs to be inert, hard wearing and dust free, and we have to assess whether farmers will accept it rather than a natural, quarried material," he points out.
"Land drainage was firmly back in fashion after the horribly wet summers of 2007 and 2008, with contractors across the UK assigned to the job of surveying, renewing and replacing long-neglected drainage schemes." Farmers Weekly 13 Apr. 2012. Environmental Studies and Policy. Web. 20 Apr. 2012.
Gale Document Number: GALE|A286210098