Moultrie County farm puts saturated buffer designs to the test

Side-by-side comparison of different buffers promises to deliver valuable research, cutting-edge nutrient management.

Southern Illinois University Professor Jon Schoonover, left, explains his unique saturated buffer design with three dispersion lines during a field day Wednesday near Sullivan in Moultrie County. Lyndsey Ramsey, Illinois Farm Bureau associate director of natural and environmental resources, looks on. (Photos by Catrina Rawson)

By Kay Shipman

Moultrie County farmer Clint Robinson’s field drew neighboring farmers and others from several counties Wednesday to view a new idea for managing nutrients.

On a brisk spring day, more than 60 farmers, land improvement contractors and others interested in conservation came to the field near Sullivan and Lake Shelbyville to see two, newly installed saturated buffers -- one, a standard design, and the other, a new design with three dispersion lines.

Illinois Farm Bureau and its partners, the Illinois Land Improvement Contractors Association (LICA), Southern Illinois University (SIU) College of Agricultural Sciences and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), hosted the field day with assistance from Moultrie County Farm Bureau. The Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council is funding the research project.  

“Anything we do on our fields needs to be done right,” Robinson, a member of IFB’s Conservation and Natural Resources Strength with Advisory Team, told the crowd.

A saturated buffer connects a drainage tile outlet with an edge-of-field buffer, using denitrification and vegetative uptake to remove nutrients from drainage water.

Robinson’s 25-acre field will house a side-by-side, in-field experiment comparing the nutrient treatment of a standard saturated buffer with a “pitchfork” saturated buffer designed by SIU Professor Jon Schoonover.

“This system is designed to reduce nitrogen and to reduce the (tile) discharge, thereby reducing the load,” Schoonover said. “If we capture 100 percent (of drained water), then there’s no discharge during lower flow.”

Schoonover explained the system is designed to allow overflow to go over stop logs and not back up drains during high-flow periods. Backflow valves were installed to stop  water in dispersion lines from flowing back into the field. Robinson plans to seed pollinator habitat in his saturated buffer. The buffer also would work for a forage crop.


Video: Learn more about the Moultrie County field day, as well as the 'pitchfork' design saturated buffer and how it works.

The new pitchfork buffer design was not difficult to install, according to contractor Greg Yoder of Yoder Farms and Drainage, Sullivan. Although this was Yoder’s first saturated buffer construction, he described it “as nothing out of the ordinary.”

Because saturated buffers allow fields to drain, farmers get that benefit in addition to nutrient management, Yoder said. Farmer customers have inquired about drainage management, but none have asked about saturated buffers; however, that may change with increased awareness, thanks to the efforts of IFB and its partners, he added.

Ryan Arch, LICA executive director, said side-by-side comparison of two saturated buffer designs in the same field is one of the most exciting aspects of the project. Plus, collected research data will underscore the effectiveness, he said.

NRCS is interested in the partners’ work “to put conservation on the land,” said Ruth Book, NRCS state conservation engineer. “Although NRCS has standards for saturated buffers, we’re still learning. I’m interested in learning and observing. I will take this information (from the pitchfork buffer research) and feed it into (NRCS) conservation standard document and guidance.”

But without Robinson volunteering land to test the saturated buffers, the partners would have no research site or field day, noted Lyndsey Ramsey, IFB associate director of natural and environmental resources.

“We thank Clint Robinson not only for his willingness to try something new, but to be a field day host and participate in research,” Ramsey said. “It’s a big commitment to put in a new practice and a bigger commitment to do something like this.”