Clean and clear: Partnerships with local drain officials

Highlighting a new program that is being tested in Michigan.

Picture of a blocky soil aggregate.
A blocky soil aggregate. Photo by Antonio Jordán

Farmers can impact the performance of the ditches that drain their fields by the management decisions they make in the nearby land. Think how often you clean your ditches, or the county cleans the ditches that go through your property. It can be expensive and reduce the access to your field.  Would you like to do that less often?


Public drains provide an essential service to farmers across Michigan. Drainage lowers the water table, increasing the aerated zone for growing profitable crops and allowing access to fields in a timely manner. Root growth requires water and air to be present in the soil in nearly equal amounts, 25 % in the pore spaces, between the soil particles. If water fills all the spaces, then there is no room for air; causing saturation. Drains along with underground drainage(tile) allow for increased time for field operations in the wet spring and fall. There has been increased installation of tile in Michigan, up 14% from 2012-2017 according to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture. 

Cover Crops and Tillage

Cover crops and no-till cropping can increase the stability of the soil in the field. Both of these practices reduce the amount of soil washed from the surface of the field into the drainage ditch. Cover crops provide a protective canopy to reduce the impact of rain on the soil surface, decreasing the breakup of soil aggregates. Over time, cover crops actually build soil organic matter, further increasing the stability of soil aggregates. Cover crops reduce soil loss by reducing the velocity of the water as it moves down a slope. Because the soil is better secured in the field, ditch maintenance becomes less frequent and less costly. Experts calculate that an acre of farm ground in a corn/beans rotation under traditional tillage can lose, on average, over five tons of soil per year. If that same field is in cover crops and no-till, the loss is reduced to 0.22 tons—That is a lot less ditch work.

Filter Strips

Filter strips increase the stability of the ditch bank and reduce sediment movement by slowing the water as it moves toward the ditch allowing it to percolate through the soil dropping any sediment it was carrying. Filter strips are the first erosion reduction tool to be used in a pilot project being done by The Nature Conservancy and certain Drain Commissions in the Western Lake Erie Basin and the Saginaw Bay Watershed.   

The project allows for reduction of drain assessments based on the land use and best management practices in place. The first pilot was done only with filter strips, but it is suggested that expanded projects could use other best management practices. You can learn more about the project by listening to In the Weeds with Monica Jean:

Series 2 Episode 1: Clean and Clear: Partnership with local drain officials

If you are interested in filter strips, cover crops, or no-till cropping you can contact me, Sarah Fronczak, or check out other resources from Michigan State University Extension.

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