WATER DAY: Mole Drains: A Cheap Alternative to Subsurface Tile Drainage

February 27, 2023

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This session has held as part of Water Day: Managing Irrigation and Water during the 2023 MI Ag Ideas to Grow With virtual conference. This virtual conference held February 27-March 10, 2023, is a two-week program encompassing many aspects of the agricultural industry and offering a full array of educational sessions for farmers and homeowners interested in food production and other agricultural endeavors. Sessions were recorded and can be found online at https://www.canr.msu.edu/miagideas/

Video Transcript

Our next discussion is our same speaker, Dr. Ehsan Ghane from Michigan State University, Biosystems Ag Engineering. The next discussion that he's going to have is about using mole drains, sort of a cheaper, less expensive, high horsepower way of draining water. Then after that, we're going to move on to irrigation topics. So with that said, let's hear Dr. Ehsan Tell us what about,  what are mole drains and how do they work? Yes. So let's we talked about some of the things you can do to help remove water faster in the first session. And there's, like I mentioned, there's also, there's so much we can do to help water remove water. And if there are very extreme rainfall events, there's little we can do, but there are some things that we can do including the ones that I mentioned, the pipe, they soil health, surface drainage, shallow drainage, having no under-performance issue. One of them is I'm having a mole drainage system. So you may there are two scenarios. So you may have just an undrained farm in let's say Upper Peninsula, an  eastern part of the UP where there is clay soil, but there's not enough growing season to have corn, corn grow there. So this may be a cheap alternative for that region. Because the cropping system, it's not going to pay to have a drainage system, expensive drain system going in. So mole drainage could be a system that could go on an undrained farm Another way is that you could actually complement this mole drain onto a system that already has a subsurface drainage system. So let's take a look at that. So let's look at this is I'm gonna get into specifications and talk about more rain. So this is a mole plow. You can see this is a it's got three points linkage tractor system 1,2. So it's 1, 2 and 3, three-point linkage. There. I found out that they have made another one where there's the same three-point linkage, but it's got two of these mole bullets that are moved through or drag through the soil that creates that channel, that channel. The reason they call it a mole is because it's similar to mole drain. It doesn't have a plastic wall, is just the soil holding there in a channel. So they have the ones with two, just to save time, they would go faster. I will show you the photo after the this slide. This is another photo of the three-point linkage plow being pulled by tractor. Can see that when it's pulled it creates cracks in the soil and its beneficial. So that pulling of that creates those cracks in the soil and helps water move into that channel and through all through into the soil profile downwards. So you can see this is a typical  side view or profile showing what it typically looks like. So you got your mole channel down here. Then you got this blade cut in the middle. And then you got those all over here. You got those soil cracks. You can see these cracks here. And typically, these are the ranges of depths that we talking about. So early on, early on when you put one of these in, your tractor, may not have enough power to pull. And if that's the case, then you can start with the 16 inches a little bit shallower and just pull it in the shallower end of this. And over time, as the structure of the soil improves, in the next round that you rerun or re  mole you can actually gradually go a little bit deeper, 20 and then up to 24 inches So that mole plow you can adjust that depth. So this is a burrow abn amazing photo from my colleague in Ireland. He's showing that late cards in that heavy all you can see, so neat you can see that big blade cut. So mole drains in just in addition to removing water and helping the drainage system. You can use it in certain instances. One of them is that if you have one of those plow pans and compacted layer, this is one way you can break up those plow pans and compacted layers and let water actually move downward. So it's one of those methods that help you because we talked in the morning that soil compaction can cause underperformance issues in the drainage system because of soil compaction. When soil compaction exists, infiltration reduces water cannot infiltrate and get to the pipe. So a mole drain can help with that, breaks up them, the plow pan and then compacted layer. Another another application of the mole drain is that I don't have a photo here, but you've probably heard about iron ocher. So in those situations, if, if you're if the system is the source of the iron is temporarily, meaning that is just in the soil on that form, that the iron becomes soluble and then through the process, it becomes iron ocher in the pipe. A mole plow is the solution for that scenario. So you could use mole plow and let the iron actually leach out from that, from the layers of the soil over several years. Then when that, when the conditions are better and there's less iron in the soil. And you've washed  away you can use the actual pipe, plastic pipe drainage system more broadly is a useful benefit. Backing up compacted layer and also in the iron ocher situation. Again, this is the first those simplified pathways of those cracks that help water movement downwards. Another mention here is that you can see on the right side. So on the left side is another angle of the same tractor pulling them the mole plow. On the right side. You can see they they started off from the ditch. This is the side. This is the ditch. And you can see some of the cracks I've shown here with arrows. Here. There's some cracks, there is more actually here. So some they are, this creates cracks in the soil. One thing that needs to be done here is that in the outlet you're going to need a rigid pipe to hold it in place because if you don't it soon, Soon after you do this, pull the plow is just collapse on itself. So this rigid pipe doesn't have to go all the way. It is just a very short pipe to hold and stabilize the very beginning of the of the channel that goes through the soil. Because as it goes through the soil is going to hold it. So a rigid pipe is needed here. This is another view of the channel. So now we're looking towards the channel now talking about the spacings. So the mole, the spacings are typically 3-6 ft wide. They're pretty narrow. The reason is that some of these mole plows are going to just give way and collapse, I'm going to fail. So the reason we have 3 ft spacing is that you need more of these. So you can actually end up with maybe half of it working, e.g. I'll get into details about that. About the maximum length, also about 200 ft. Because the longer the mole plows, the higher chances that it's going to fail. Because if you have, let's say you got 1,000 ft long mole plow. If any part of that fails near the end of the mole plow before reaching the age, then you whole mole plow is going to be dysfunctional. It doesn't matter if you got 800 ft uphill working just fine, but at the very end it collapse. It's just not going to work. So shorter the better, because that increases the chance of that water actually getting into the ditch, moving away from the farm. Like I mentioned about the spacing, some of them are going to fail. So what you need to do in that case is that you need to plan for a narrower to get the final wider. So let me give an example on this graph here. So let's say these are probably 6 inches, 6 ft, for example if you want to end up with a 6 ft spacing, you're going to start with double that. We're going to start with like 3 ft spacing. So I'm gonna say, okay, distance from here to here. The distance from here to here. If it's 3 ft and again another three. So I'm going to plan for a 3 ft and keep going spacing, right. So in this case, because I'm planning on the three, i'm, I'm actually plowing and moleing 3 ft spacing. My goal, ultimate goal is to have this final this final wider spacing which is a 6 ft. So because some of these are going to fail, the recommendation is that you plan for something narrower to get your ultimate final wider spacing. So in this case, I'm moled every 3 ft. My ultimate goal was to have 6 ft spacing here because they they do fail. It really depends on the conditions. I'm going to get into that in the next slide. So in these small plows, I should have mentioned it a little bit more about them, that these mole plows like I mentioned in those cracks that I showed you, they help move water from that surface into the pipe and away it's a soil improvements and also is the drainage enhancing and drainage improving performance system. Both of those things. Let's move on. So like I mentioned about the depths, so the tractor may not be able to pull at 16, at 24 inches, for example so starting with a shallower depth, maybe possible. So you can start with something shallower, pull that and over time, the soil structure is going to improve because now the soil is no longer flooded for long periods of time, you're going to have a better structure because when you dry the soil biological activity goes up. The soil structure improves over time because it's good. Air can actually get in, aeration improves. So that's the benefit there. You would start with something shallower and over time, as the soil  structure improves, we can actually go deeper up to the 24 inches depth. But you gotta be careful to avoid if you have an existing classic web, you don't want to rip through that. So that's something you want to be at least 4 inches from the top of the plastic pipe. You want to be away from that. With that 24 inches, you should be away from that pipe because those are typically 28, 29, 30 inches deep, the plastic pipes. So the difference between or do I need shallow or the deeper ones? So the deeper ones, the reason you want to go to towards the deeper one over time. So you start off with a shallow and then over several years, as the soil structure improves, you can actually go deeper. The deeper ones are going to last longer than the shallower ones. Because obviously the shallower ones are gonna be have more roots. You're going to be damaged by roots, animals, rodents swelling and shrinking of the soil. Those things actually deteriorate the shallower channels quicker than if it's a deeper one. So that's why generally the deeper moles last longer than the shallower mole channels. So when to install the mole drains on on your calendar, you may. You're going to need to know when to do this so that you'll get the best outcome. So we can't just do it at anytime. The best times is summertime because the drier the soil, the better. You may find. Obviously in other seasons, you may have these dryer seasons, but this is typical, I'm saying typically, generally summer is the best time because the soil is drier. And if the soil is too wet and if you're trying to pull pull it with the expander behind it and that could actually cause smearing in the channel. The smearing with when the surface is inside of the channel will just get compacted. And then water can enter that channel properly and fast. So that smearing could be a problem if it's just wet in those areas at the depth of the mole pulling. So the dryer, the better. There is a method that you can determine if the soil at the depth that you're intending to do is going to be at the right moisture. You need to take a sample of the soil. For example on a beautiful sunny day, you go out, you take you auger hole and then you get to the depth let's say you get to the 16 inch depth and then you take a sample of the soil, then there is a method that you can actually determine with just with your hand. You can determine is this moisture the right moisture that I'm gonna get the best details about that is in the website. On our website, we will share that in the link. On the chat. So moving on from that, That's the way you would determine the soil is at the right moisture. So now let's get into the system. So we talked about some of the photos that I showed you. They didn't have a drainage tile system in the ground. It was just purely mole drains. But there's a way you can actually combine it with a subsurface drainage system. So in this setting, you would have you will have a system like this. This is a profile. You got your plastic pipes that are at those two-and-a-half feet depth. And then you got your shallower, mole plows you can see. So typically we say that they need to be perpendicular, but even if it's at an angle, it's not a big problem because you won't be able to have this exactly perpendicular in all cases because in some cases the drains actually curve. So you can see these mole  plows eventually. If this is the ditch here, eventually end up in a ditch. I'm just drawing it here. So the important part is that these mole plows are going to move with the topography of the landscape because there's no digital adjustments that you can do as you're as you're driving a tractor. So you're gonna have to move with the topography of the landscape. So if the landscape is going down hill, you're going to move with that, moving downhill to create so the moles actually moving downhill. You don't want to just go at a flat surface because water may not be able to move if it's just no grade or no downhill on the pipe. So you can see in this example, it really depends on the conditions on how the field is laid out how your pipe is laid out. But generally, you would be able to have these actually go downhill with a gentle slope of the surface. Water would actually when you pull that water would actually move in this direction and out into the ditch. Wanting to remember is to avoid cutting the plastic pipes, drains that I mentioned also. If you follow those recommendations, the depth, the 16 to 24 inches, you would be away from those because these plastic pipes have to be two-and-a-half feet deep. So this, this was what I mentioned here was the scenario one where you actually have, this is the cheapest scenario where you have your drain channels, the mole channels flow into the ditch. So in this scenario, one, water flows into the ditch because these mole plows  were pulled along the landscape, the slope. So water is going to go downhill with the mole plowss. Let's look at another scenario. This other center is going to be costly. But this is a common scenario in Europe. They actually follow this. What, what, what's happening here is that you can see, I'm looking at the side view. This is my drain pipe. This is my mole plow. So I have a trench. Where in this trench I have a mole plow. So in this scenario, water that moves through the mole, which is this section here. Reaches the gravel and then it just flows downwards towards the drain pipe and the drain pipes carry the water away. So in this scenario, you don't have that outlet in the ditch that you can actually just move the drain, the mole channels towards. If it's not present. In this setting, you're going to need to have every, every so many, you don't have to have one of these channels on every single lateral drain pipe on the farm. What at an interval of about hundred to 200 really depends on the soil. So about 100 to 200 ft. You're going to need one or these channels to carry the water away if you can just have the mole  plows going to ditch. So that would be scenario two in that case. But after mentioning all of these topics, lot of benefits are out there from mole. Mole drain, like I mentioned, And scientific research shows that it increases yield and that's common sense, is like a subsurface tile drainage system. It pays to put it in in a row crop system because it helps boost yield. This is the same way if you could get that water away and not that the crop drowned, then this system would help you increase yield because of that wet stress, too much water causes a stress and you use the mole drains. It's not a surprise that they increase yield. They improve soil structure. Is the drainage improvement method where the question is, where can I do this? You can't do it anywhere. There are certain soil properties that you need to have in terms of the texture. So it is very suitable if you have a minimum of 45% clay, less than 20 percent sand. The reason for that is that if you have, let's say you have a sandy loam soil, it's just not going to work in a sandy loam or silt soil. Some soils that have lots of sand, very little clay. It's just not going to work because that channel is not going to hold. It's just going to collapse on itself because it's got too much sun it, the particles don't stick together well in a sandy loam soil. So it's very suitable in that, but it's also suitable as low as 35 percent clay. That's what the research has shown in Europe. That minimum 35 percent play and the clay at the drain, at the drain depth or the mole channel depth. Not that this top soil, but at that depth where you'll want to install that drain like to 16 to 24 inches. So you're going to need to take a soil sample to see what the texture is. It is unsuitable, like I mentioned, if you have less than 35% clay because it's just not going to have that ability to hold and stay into that channel form. In terms of the landscape topography, it's very suitable if you're landscape has uniform slope. Like uniform slope in one direction in the ranges of about two tenths of a percent to 3%. If you have a rolling land. So you go like this. It's just not going to work because the more water, it can just move the water away because it's going uphill downhill, uphill downhill. But it works if you have a uniform slope and ranges of slope up to 0.2 to three percent. But if you have more than, grade more than that and is extremely steep, it could cause it could cause erosion as well. Just just collapse that mole channel because water is moving too fast. So like I mentioned, grade of the mole follows the landscape slope. A uniform landscape is very suitable for that. And if that grade is to steep, like I mentioned, three percent, then erosion could occur and then then you erosion inside the pipe could just slowly , eat away from the walls and the channel walls and just collapse it over time. Then you may ask, Okay, How long is this going to last? If I if I put it in, how long it's going to like is really going to depend on the on the conditions when you install it. And also the soil stability, that texture of the soil. The more clay the longer it's going to last. If you have lots of sun its just going to collapse soon. And also the soil mostly during installation. That's also part of that too. You've gotta have that sweet spot soil moisture for this to actually stay well, and I mentioned I didn't talk about that, but there's a step-by-step method that I have on the website that shows you how to identify if you have that moisture is very simple. The second one, if you have those ideal conditions and you have the really good soil also clay, then it could last beyond five years. There are, in the literature, there are more genes that have been working for 15 years. I have read. And but it, it means those perfect conditions during installation and the soil needs to be really, really, really have lots of clay. But typically, you may, under typical normal general conditions, you probably going to have to rerun your mole three to four years or maybe up to five years. But those are the average numbers. Every three to four years is going to have to start remoleing like you get on the tractor and again, create those channels again every three to four years and every time you do. Soil structure is going to improve because you created that aeration that didn't exist before, because you increase the aeration when before it was just waterlogged for long periods of time. Like I mentioned that in the aeration  increases crop yield. Help us remove water faster. So the take-home messages, mole drains, because they improve water movement. They they improve soil physical properties. They increase, they increase yields. Mole drains improve drainage leads to better soil structure. That's also another benefit because of that, reducing the prolonged water logging conditions and create increasing aeration. So soil structure going to improve. They can be added to a subsurface drainage system for water, faster water removal. Like I mentioned, you have a drainage system, you could just go above it. To buy. Meanwhile, remembering to avoid cutting it, we don't want to cut through the plastic. If you are above those and you create those mole, you can help take water away faster. You could drain to the ditch or you may need to create those trenches and put some gravel so the water from the mole channels flows into those channels, they gavel and away. And finally, it is the mole, mole drains or the soil and drainage improvement practice. Thank you so much. I can take questions now. And why? Like I mentioned, I'm going to put the mole website where it talks about identifying the moisture in the chat. And the one question I see in the chat is sort of describing they're looking for the difference between a sub-soiler and the tool that you're using. So what is the difference between a sub-soiler? Yeah. So isn't this in a sub-soiler  there's just basically like a flat flat piece of metal that just lifts the soil. So the difference is that that really doesn't create those channels as, as good as this does. Probably that would be the case. Because because when the sub-soiler creates those is probably the soil is probably going to set that back down again. So Lyndon could help him with that. But if the source is back down, you don't have that channel. You lift, you're mixing, and then the soil  comes back down again. So you lose that channel in the ground for water movement. So the difference you're saying is the point, the subsoiler has got a point that's designed to shatter everything down there and push it up. And what you're using is actually pulling a slug through to form a channel to drain that water away? Yeah. The difference would be the existence of the channel like your pathway or the other one doesn't create that it moves soils, lifts soil and really doesn't create that continuous channel.  there may be some gaps, some places of course, but it's not gonna be a continuous channel because it pulls this expander in the soil. And just if the soils are have clay content like I showed 45% and above it, and it's done at the right time, it's going to hold. This is not a new, It's new for North America. But in Europe and Ireland or in Asia. It's been going on for a long time. And there's multiple research projects showing the benefits of this. Okay. So James is asking, where do you get the mole plow? Is there US manufacturers. And unfortunately, there isn't you can't get it in North America, Canada, or the United States, you cannot get it here. Unfortunately, I've been trying to get people to start actually manufacturing these things, but it requires demand for this to go in. But it could be a business you may want to start. But currently, the only way we could get it is from Ireland. We have I have contacts there. We can get those from Ireland. And actually I mentioned that I want to show. So remember I mentioned that there's one there's one that I mentioned with the double. We can see this is one and this is two, and this is the three-point linkage 1,2, 3. So it would actually make the process faster than the single one. So that's that that that I said. I will show you the moisture that you need is it needs to be just below the plastic limit. These are terminologies that I didn't want to use. But there's a step-by-step method here in this paragraph that I've written that explains how to get to that moisture. So if I'm Betsy, thank you. She shared it in the chatbox where you get the soil moisture. So unfortunately there isn't any here. So horsepower, it looks like that thing uses a lot of horsepower. D o you have an idea? Yeah. It really depends on the clay because you know, if that if there is lots of clay, if you're going through like moldy clay is just gonna be hard. It's going to be so you need more power. The more the clay, the harder and more tight that soil, the more power. I think what, 5,200 hp or something. But I mentioned if you are in the lower end of that horsepower on your tractor, you could start shallower. Um, then, then getting into very deep because as you go down there's more clay is just tougher. To pull that. In the first try. You may have to wait and go shallower and then let the source structure improve or get a more powerful tractor. Pull that. Another thing I heard that I heard some folks have actually tried to make this in the welding shop themselves is not really a very complex system that I showed you in the fourth row. You could retrofit some of your existing plows with cylinder, something that pulls in the ground and creates that channel. So it could be done here too. Yeah, the system actually it looks more like a perpetrator or a subsoiler built a lot heavier than than our chisel plows or our moldboard plows that yeah. Something designed to get down in that 20, 20 inch range. Is that about what you're thinking? Yeah. 16 to 24. I would say if it's attracted, can pull that 2024 right at the beginning because of so much play that deep down in the soil profile. So starting off with the shallower and gradually does what they do in Europe, they gradually go to the deeper ones after the soil improvements. No soil is a little bit better over time. But keep in mind that that's a good question with the horsepower. So what is the difference between a subsoiler three-point attachment, three linkage, and a mole? Yeah. They're the same concept. It's just it's just the name of that plow because it's got three linkages. Let me show you in the diagram, I think I would be easier in the difference between those two. It will be easily seen here, probably. Let me do this. So three, the name of this plow, is called three links three points linkage because there's one there's 1,2,3 links to the tractor. That's why they call it three point linkage. So it's the same thing to answer your questions yes. Then the question continues my subsoiler is a three-point hook up with a flat plate. You have. So it is the same three points hookup or three point linkage that would be attached to the blade on one end and then the tractor pulling that. But this this this mole drain topic is something I've recently been talking about with my European colleagues in Ireland, and they've been doing it for many years. They're very excited about it. So I am, so am I about this small drains? So in theory, do you think it could be possible to create a bullet cylinder? I think so. I have there's a contact if you contact me or maybe all to find the person there was I got a photo that they had this retrofitted the system themselves in the thumb of Michigan. So it is possible you can make it yourself by retrofitting the existing plow. What the key thing is that having this if you have such if you make such a plow than doing it the right time, I would I'm doing it with the right soil at the right moisture. If you have those conditions, it's going to work. Through research has proven that this is going to work if you have those conditions with the heavier clay soil. If you do test this, please. Contact me. I would like to visit and just see how it's performing and also take some videos of photos of the installation. I would love that. Yeah. So Abigail mentioned that they may know they have a heavy soil and they may want to try making one. Yeah. If you if you contact me, if this is a possibility that you would actually get it done and I would really like to see the installation and take some photos here. So Abigail is asking, she's tried to put it on her honeyd-do list. Husband is a millright and can, wondering about making one, a setup. That'd be great. And I think also talking to companies that are doing the most, the machine that looks most like this is our penetrators or our sub soiling machines. So talking to the companies that are manufacturing them to see what their interest is. Well, that said if there's any other questions type them in, if they come in a little later, we'll have Dr. Ehsan answer those via e-mail to you. That sees out there Betsy, do you want to talk to them a little bit about the survey? And we'll give everybody a chance to type any additional questions in. This session offers CCA credits. So if you are looking to receive those, you can complete the evaluation survey. The CCA QR code will be at the completion of that survey. I'll drop the link to the survey in the chat now, um, if you're just here where they content, that's great too. We would love your feedback on that survey either way. Again, you'll click into that survey. You'll select that you're attending water day. You'll pick the specific session per mole drains and work your way through that process in just a minute. I'll also put up a QR code for the evaluation survey in case that's easier or you can click on the link in the chat. I really recommend people put in some suggestions in that survey of what we'd like to, what you'd like to see next year. So we aren't just talking about what we want, but I'm adding to our discussion the things in future years that you'd like to see. So the question popped up again about storing water. Mole drains increase your water stored within the field? Yeah. So like I mentioned so the purpose of the mole drain was to get water away quicker, faster. Storing water in the field is not gonna be possible directly with just the mole drain because there's no means of water management to retain water. Lacking the controlled drainage system we talked about was that there's a means, there's a structure that gives us the ability to manage water and then retain water. But in a mole drain, there is no management in there. It's a mole in the ground is a channel. It takes water away quicker compared to not having them all drains or any, any system. So it doesn't really retain water or store water in the field. It takes water away faster. Storing water away. Storing water would be possible with conservation. Practice of control drainage yeah. Or saturated buffers or right? Yeah, Other practices of conservation, but not mole. Mole is just taking water away. Are there any other drainage systems that you have the ability to put controls into? When you do controlled drainage, you're actually raising the height that the water is in the profile. Are there any other systems that have that kind of control? There is. Another system is saturated buffer system that gives you the same ability as a controlled drainage system. In a saturated buffer. We're slowing down. Just similarly, we're raising the outlet elevation and we're slowing down water removal during the non-growing season, mostly, and also during the growing season as well. So a saturated buffer acts similar to controlled drainage system. In terms of slowing down water, retaining water on the farm. We actually have with the research project showing the benefits of the saturated buffer, which such as buffer system has controlled in each component. And then there's the component where water is pushed to the soil. So there's two parts of that. So that they the same they have the same water  retaining in the soil. So Ehsan the only other place I know where we try to control drainage is where we actually put in small dams or retention structures within drainage ditches, which is fairly common in Michigan, especially in our sandier areas where they put the put the dam in two or 3 ft high every mile or so. The drainage ditch to help retain the water is that it's one of those quiet practices that drain commissioners seem to tolerate. Is that actually a way of retrieving more water in the profile? Absolutely. It's common in Southeast North Carolina that I've visited. They have these systems where they are actually doing management of the water inside the ditch where they have these weir water is built behind those weirs. And then water actually slows down. The water that's coming from the farm is going to slow down. So it's going to help that water retained into the soil by means of actually doing the work inside the ditch with a weir. So it is common. It's, it's actually in the literature. This is a common practice that you can do. The thing with that practice is that is that because you're managing in the ditch? If another form from the let's say you've got a farm going east to west. All of the farms on the north and south are gonna be affected with that. Because you gotta  ditch going from East to West and then South fields and north fields, they're both going to be affected by that management in a ditch. Whereas the other system where you have a structure at the actual main pipe, then you just managing that pipe, really doing something for the North farm, maybe someone else owns that. But if it's a small enough ditch and all of the property is owned by the same person, they want to do the same management, then this could be done. Probably, maybe cheaper, actually. Good. If you have any other questions, We got a few minutes yet. If you have questions, type them in, we'll we'll get those two Ehsan before the days out here. And having respond by e-mail. Does that sound okay, Ehsan. Great. Yes. Thank you. Well, thanks for being here. Thanks everyone for attending.