A More Efficient Approach to Water Quality: Batch and Build
- Keegan Kult of ADMC, Executive Director
Keegan Kult, Executive Director of the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition (ADMC), joins Jamie to talk about their latest initiatives, including Batch and Build, which improves water quality an entire watershed at a time.
Episode 56 | 45 min
Keegan Kult has been working with agricultural water management for more than 15 years. He has contributed to 80+ edge of field practice installations, the development of new conservation practice standards, and to scientific literature documenting practice performance and cost effectiveness. Keegan holds a Master of Science from Iowa State University in Environmental Science with an emphasis on water resources and a Bachelor of Science degree also from Iowa State University in Forestry.
Want more? Here’s some related content you might be interested in:
Agricultural Water Management Coalition (ADMC) Resources Page
Learn about a batch & build project in Des Moines, Iowa! – “Central Iowa Blitz Project Will Add 51 Water Quality Practices within Des Moines and Raccoon River Watersheds”
This is the water table.
Speaker 2 (00:05):
A chance to hear the agricultural side of these issues.
Speaker 3 (00:09):
A place for people to go find information and education.
Speaker 1 (00:13):
Water management is just going to become even more critical into the future.
Speaker 3 (00:17):
How misunderstood what we do is.
Speaker 2 (00:22):
I would encourage people to open their minds and listen to this dialogue.
Well, hi everyone. Welcome back to the Water Table podcast. Today I have a fun guest with me. I have Keegan Kult. Keegan’s with the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition, or I know it as ADMC, but Keegan’s been working in the agricultural water management industry for about 15 years and has contributed to over 80 edge of field practices of installations, developed new conservation practice standards, and he has his master’s of science degree from the Iowa State University, Almost said University of Iowa. That would’ve been terrible, but Iowa State.
Keegan Kult (01:12):
That would’ve been a bad start.
Yeah. Yeah, it would’ve. And also has a bachelor of science degree from Iowa State University in forestry. So Keegan, welcome to the podcast. Going to be a fun time just visiting about what you do. Probably explain a little bit more about ADMC and I’m going to have ask you questions and I know I’m going to have a lot of questions to your answers because a lot of things that I work on every day and talk to talk about every day with customers and employees here at Princeco. So welcome to the podcast.
Keegan Kult (01:46):
Yeah, thanks Jamie. Thanks for having me. Kudos on this podcast, by the way. It’s really well done. I put it out in my newsletter quite a bit to people that subscribe to us and it has a lot of great material and you guys cover a wide array of topics, so it’s pretty interesting to tune in week to week.
Yeah. Well, thank you. Thanks for saying that. It’s been fun to do and it’s interesting you say we cover a wide array of topics because when the podcast is named The Water Table and you’re talking about water and agriculture and subsurface management of it, the topic gets pretty narrow and you’ve been doing it for a couple of years, it’s hard to find new topics. So we try to keep them somewhat similar, but they certainly have branched out and a lot of those have branched out over because of relationships and relationships that somehow touched the industry, but might be a little bit or significantly off from what you do at ADMC.
(02:51): And again, that’s how ADMC was formed, was a bunch of people from an industry that had relationships together. And a couple of people, Charlie Schaffer being one of them that have a vision. Charlie’s a visionary for sure, and now we’re coming on over 18 years of ADMC being in business and there’s been so many good things that have been done, and I don’t think that story has gotten out enough. So that’s part of what I want to do here today is just talk about that. Maybe we’ll just start with what ADMC is. It’s an industry led coalition that develops partnership to advance America’s water management and improve agricultural production efficiencies, water quality, and environmental outcomes to meet sustainable intensification goals. And that’s what you are. But let’s talk a little bit more about the history of ADMC. Why was there in the beginning the vision for ADMC?
Keegan Kult (04:01):
That was kind of a good textbook definition of what ADMC and what ADMC does. Really ADMC was formed early 2003, 2004 to can kind of be a response. At the time, there was a USDA initiative called the AG Drainage Management Systems task force. And so that had a lot of the USDA researchers, other agency people like NRCS in there as well as the extension universities were part of this task force. And really there were some things that task force couldn’t do and maybe they didn’t have the connections with on farm as much. And so really the visionary, Charlie Schaffer, as you mentioned, had this idea of, well, we can pull the industry together and we can form the industry relations on this and provide feedback to what that task force is doing. Try to give them feedback on are these practices that they’re coming up with practical? What’s working, what’s not working? So ADMC, I think it’s really interesting. It’s a group of competitors that all come down, but they see the bigger picture of we need to advance this practice. We can’t just kind of rest on our laurels. Drainage doesn’t look the same as it did 100 years ago and 20 years from now drainage probably won’t look the same as it does today. And so we’re really about trying to advance what’s the next generation or drainage going to look like and how can we do it in a way that we can get outcomes that everybody wants to see.
And so you talk about the members, many of them are competitors, not all of them. And I think there’s around 40 members of this coalition. And what is the makeup of that membership?
Keegan Kult (05:46):
So we have a lot of the tile manufacturers, distributors, those are our members, some of the engineering groups that are out there that work on the designs of these practices and maybe larger main county main type size projects. And then a lot of the contractor organizations and then contractors themselves. So we have a very close relationship with Leica and a lot of the state chapters of Leica. We really value that relationship. Then also, of course, our contractor members, we get a lot of great feedback from them. They’re the ones that actually get the work done and put into the ground.
So how is ADMC funded and how does that work when you only have 40 members?
Keegan Kult (06:27):
Yeah, so we’re about 50/50 on membership support. And then also I have a lot of grant and contracted type work. It’s changed a little bit. They brought me on as executive director four years ago, so the fall of 2018. And with that, that was a significant investment into kind of upping what ADMC was doing. It had been run without an executive director for a few years anyways. And so it was kind of run through the board some projects that they’d contract off to do to advance what they’re doing. But the board came together and said, “Maybe we should take that next step and try to make this bigger than what it is today.” And so that’s what we’re doing. So getting back to the question on that funding, yeah, it’s about 50% membership support then 50% contracted work. And we really do value that membership support because that’s really what allows me to go out and build relationships and do things that I don’t have a specific grant to do. And so that’s what really expands our messaging.
Sure, sure. And when you talk about why ADMC and what you’re doing, you’ve got some pretty specific goals. Some of the goals around accelerating adoption and implementation of practices. And talk a little bit about your goals and what you see as over the years that you’ve been there as being successful and what you’re excited about when it comes to achieving some of those goals.
Keegan Kult (07:56):
For sure. Really accelerating adoption. We think we have a great list of practices that will work for a farmer and a landowner. They’ll work for a contractor to be able to go out there and install. We just might not have the mechanisms to get those practices on the ground in an efficient manner yet. And so to accelerate the adoption of that, we look at just about everything to tell you the truth. We’re out there doing educational seminars with farmers themselves, with contractors on how to install the practices. But even some of our agency friends that are responsible for doling out the technical assistance and financial assistance, some of these practices aren’t really practices that they’re comfortable with. It’s not as easy to say, “Hey, let’s go put a cover crop out there.” Or maybe a waterway is the kind of classic practice that they’re very good at doing.
But some of this working with the actual drainage itself, it is not their first language. And so going out there and trying to educate them that, hey, this is an option in this field, is a big part of what we do. And then I talk a lot about practice delivery. We talk about wanting to scale everything up all the time, and that’s always, always kind of the buzzword, but sometimes feels like we’re not really doing anything about that to actually get to scale. We kind of do the same thing over and over again in an ad hoc, I kind of call it random acts of conservation. So we’re trying to figure out ways, well hey, we talk about watershed approaches all the time. There’s a lot of great watershed planning that’s going on all over the United States, but when it comes to installing conservation practices, a lot of times it’s still more in a one off type manner.
So we’ve developed some systems. You may have heard of the batch and build, I know you’ve talked about it a little bit on the podcast before where we’re really looking at, all right, we’re going into this watershed. We know this watershed wants 100 of these saturated buffers to get put in place. How are we actually going to do that? We don’t want this to take 100 years or 50 years to get there for only doing one or two at a time. And so we really try to figure out, well, let’s make this as easy as possible for the landowner. Let’s make it so the contractor wants to do the work and let’s make it as cheap as possible by building efficiencies of scale.
You talked a little bit in there about education and one of the goals of ADMC is to educate its members and the general public. And just want to talk a little bit about that because that’s one of the things that, as I started this podcast a couple years ago, that was important to me is so many times what we do in subsurface water management and drainage water management is misunderstood. It’s misunderstood even by people that you would think would know a lot of people in agriculture and they probably would understand it. Don’t always understand exactly what we’re doing or why it works, but especially the general public. And so often over the years I’d be frustrated with how do we communicate to our city cousins that what we do is good for the environment and what we do is needed. When you start talking about things like cover crops and carbon sequestration, the need for subsurface water management is just going to grow and there’s going to be conflict there if there isn’t that education and understanding.
And I’ve been excited about, even though it’s in real small spurts, about our ability here at The Water Table to speak to some of those people. We’ve had some comments, we have some listeners from people that are not in agriculture, are not an installer, a contractor or tile manufacturer, but just general public that want to learn. And they’ll call me and ask me a question or they’ll tell me, “I really learned something there.” That’s very small progress. But it’s also exciting because you got to start somewhere and I think that ADMC is doing the same thing. But talk a little bit about any of your frustrations or wins when it comes to education to the general public.
Keegan Kult (12:02):
Talking about the misconceptions or how drainage is perceived and viewed, even within the farming community. Actually, I was writing an article just yesterday and I was trying to edit. I couldn’t quite get the right analogy. Maybe you could do it for me, Jamie. I always kind of say drainage is one of the most appreciated yet underappreciated practices. It’s one of the first things farmers think about doing when they get a piece of land, if they’re trying to make that improvement on it.
Yet focusing on everything that we can do with drainage, it always seems like an afterthought. And I come from that, from the perspective of, where’s our focus right now with our agencies? And we talk about soil health all the time, and that’s a very important matter. But for some reason that we’ve separated soil health and water table management. And they’re very intertwined on it.
Dr. [inaudible 00:12:51] out of Michigan State University gives a great extension presentation about, if your tile system’s underperforming, what are the reasons that it’s underperforming? And one of the first things he’ll talk about is soil health, with that of, you don’t have that infiltration. If it’s compacted, you’re not getting the water into that system like it was designed to do. And that causes issues.
And the education standpoint, a win I would say actually, this past summer we’ve revamped our drainage water management certification classes. We had a great partnership with CTIC, our Conservation Technology Information Center out of Indiana to go and put on a series of these trainings. And so, we had Dr. Gary Sands from the University of Minnesota would come out and do these teachings. The post COVID world, now we’re used to doing things online, so we’re like, “Hey, instead of just doing these in-person, what if we open it up online?”
And actually our first event that we had, we had it all online and we had 120 people sign up for that. We had 60 people that actually came and completed it in-person. And other people just did the on demand versions of that. But we had a great mix of… We had contractors in there, we had engineers in there, we had researchers that wanted to take the class just to get refreshed on it. But also, really importantly I thought, was, we had a lot of agency personnel. So, we had a lot of people in the Chesapeake Bay area learning about drainage water management and the benefits of that.
And that’s one other thing that I mentioned earlier, how you could go to a county office and some county offices, they won’t know what these practices are, and so they never encourage farmers to take a look at them. So being able to reach out to those people is important. And then more general public, these partnerships that we have for the batch and build, for example, the Polk County was one of the funding partners on this. They’re actually one of the managers on it. They’re the fiscal agents of it. And they understood their practice well, so they’re making that public investment in these practices upstream. And I think they realize that there’s a lot of good that can be done by doing so.
It just gives you an opportunity, when you get general public asking questions, it gives you an opportunity to tell your story. And our story as our industry, is a really good story. And I think so often over the years, we don’t get that opportunity to tell the story, so we don’t know how to tell the story. And if we have more and more opportunities and we’re in the conversation, we develop ways to tell the story that are clearer, that are easier to understand, and that people then can ask even better questions because they understand what we do and how we do it.
How you started that too, I like to say, I heard a saying a long time ago around how it takes a long time to get dry but only takes one day to get wet. And so, I think that’s part of it… that’s an obvious statement. It’s true. Every farmer will recognize that and understand that. But it also is at times, in out of sight, out of mine. Because what that means is, there’s short periods of dry times and there’s short periods of really wet times and there’s all that in between time.
But that in between time, things are just going fine. And everybody knows they need drainage, but they’re not thinking about it all the time because they don’t feel like they need it right now, even though they do because of all of the research that shows how well it works. So, I think that that little statement is part of it and how they think about it, because it’s out of sight out of mind.
Keegan Kult (16:26):
Yeah. And that really even applies to building that relationship with the public. It takes a long time to get dry, so maybe a long time to maybe heal a relationship. Usually people start pointing fingers when there’s a big, catastrophic event and they think about it. In Iowa, of course, the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit because we’ve had to run the nitrate plant so many days. And so then a lot of fingers started getting pointed. And so, it takes a long time to build that relationship back after that big wet event.
And I think it’s also important for us to remember, it is a two way street. There are real concerns for people, the general public, on stuff. But by having these open channels of communication, I think it really helps a lot. And some people like to throw around the word, partnerships, just because it sounds good. But you really do get a lot of work done because people do have different areas of expertise.
And I’ll keep going back to this batch and build. We’re using… One of the big innovations on that is, [inaudible 00:17:29] it’s really not that innovative, but it is for practice deliveries, we use a fiscal agent on that. And so, we use a public entity that’s used to dealing with infrastructure improvements. So a lot of the counties out there, they’re used to doing public bid letting all the time. And this is something one-on-one smaller conservation practices, it wasn’t being done.
That’s something we could like, “Hey, well we could rely on you, this public entity, for something that we’re not really equipped to do ourselves.” And they’re like, “Oh, yeah. That’s no problem. And we could do it this way, this way, and that way.” And all of a sudden, we can get this paperwork in place and instead of putting five practices in the ground over a year, now we’re putting in 50 in this area, just because we expanded it so much. And it’s really not that much bigger of a lift.
Right, right. Yep. Let’s switch gears here a little bit and tell me about the conservation network, conservation drainage network, and who they are. And how does that relate to ADMC and how do you work together?
Keegan Kult (18:27):
Yeah. So this is another one of those things, when I mentioned that membership really helps us build partnerships. So, our membership dollars allows us to be fully integrated in this conservation drainage network. And really, that’s kind of the graduation of what that original ag drainage management systems task force was. And so, we have a lot of the extension universities are members of this conservation drainage network. I’ll list them, but I’ll probably leave a few off. So, the Purdues and Minnesota, North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Iowa State University, of course, Illinois, they’re all involved in this network. So, there’s a lot of the researchers involved in this realm of water management, both for production and for environmental responses are involved.
Then we do have key agency partners too with NRCS that can be affiliated with this in USGS. And so, it’s really a way for the group of… People are in this realm to get together. It’s not an official affiliation, I would say, and there’s no membership dollars to be within CDN. But the support to ADMC kind of lets us help push that drainage network forward behind the scenes to make sure everybody’s staying on task and things are moving forward. Everybody has a full-time job, and so part of my full-time job is to keep CDN moving forward.
So just recently, we’ve had a couple series of webinars that we’ve put on through CDN and I think those are very successful. We had people all over the United States tune into them. Even Canada, into UK tuned into these webinars. And I think they were some of your guests on your podcast too, you could see that relationship building. Eric Snodgrass, our Nutrien, who just has a phenomenal message of why all this stuff’s important, because we’re dealing with it. Right? And then Dr. Castellano gave the most recent one through this Conservation Drainage Network webinar series.
Let’s talk a little bit about that. That was a question I had for you, is, the Dr. Castellano webinar was just in the last few days or in the past week. And there was some information shared there that was pretty exciting about drainage water management and field test plots. Can you share that with us, a little bit about what he said there?
Keegan Kult (20:49):
Dr. Castellano, for those who aren’t familiar, he’s at Iowa State University. He works in the Department of Agronomy. He’s also with a new initiative center there, the Iowa Nitrogen Initiative where, they’re basically going back through and redoing MRTN and taking a closer look at that maximum return to nitrogen equation that they’re doing. So, they’re putting plots out all over Iowa.
But some of the work that he’s done working closely with others at Iowa State, is looking at the impacts that drainage has on how efficiently we grow our crops. And so really, he’s taken a look at it and saying something that I guess we’ve probably all known in the past, but really putting in some numbers to it now, of how drainage takes a lot of the uncertainty out of the equation with it. And especially in terms of, how much nitrogen does a farmer need to apply? That could be really unpredictable from year to year. I think the number he gave was a hundred kilograms per hectare, which is about the same, hundred pounds per acre, pretty close. There could be that big of a swing on what the optimum rate of nitrogen can be in an undrained field.
And they did some comparisons and looking at controlled drainage. He was showing that they could take up to 75% of that annual variability out of the equation by using controlled drainage on those sites. And so if you think about that in terms of a lot of times, we all know farmers as a little bit of an insurance agent for them, “All right, if I recommend rates 150, I’m might so at 175 just to be sure I have enough nitrogen. Well, if we can start really narrowing in on that, that takes a lot of that excessive nitrogen out of the equation.
Thanks for that. That’s exciting. I think a question I want to ask you, and this really probably is as much for what we talked about earlier, are listeners that might be more on the general public side. Because they’re driving down the road, they’re in rural America and seeing edge of field practices. And they might not know what’s going on, and that ADMC is a part of that. But talk a little bit to me about edge of field practices. Give us maybe a quick overview of what they are and how they help with things like water quality and drainage water management.
Keegan Kult (23:05):
So, we really have kind a couple different forms. They all get lumped into edge of field. First, water, drainage water management or control drainage, that’s more infield, I suppose. But that’s where we can actually control that outlet elevation, that field. So instead of having 24, 7 free flow out of a tile line, we can shut that water off when we don’t need drainage. Because we don’t need drainage year round. So during the spring, before spring field operations, you want to get that benefit of that drainage.
Then you can actually hold that water back after you get your spring operations taken care of and kind of maintain that water table, and hopefully stairstep it down to what your rut growth’s going to be. And you can store some water for later in the year. Maybe open it back up towards harvest, in case we get hit with another wet fall. Make sure you can get those operations done in time. But when there’s nothing in the field, you can shut that drainage off and kind of hold it in place until that next spring, and just by doing that you can reduce your nitrogen that’s coming off that field by 50% or more. You can also see those yield bumps. We’re going to get better with automated drainage, honing in on those recommended, where should we hold that water table? But we can see five, 10 bushel per acre yield bumps by doing that as well. And then the other suite of practices are truly at the edge of field, so the saturated buffers and the bioreactors.
Saturated buffers’ a pretty simple practice where we have a control structure and we sit on that main or on that outlet and we basically will divert a portion of that flow through a parallel pipe that runs parallel to the stream about 30 feet away, and we let that water go through that soil profile and then go through denitrification in that soil profile. Bioreactors are a little bit more of a lift for a practice compared to saturated buffers, but they do work in about any location. So that’s the big positive with bioreactors. But instead of having that tile line run parallel to the stream in the soil profile, we basically excavate a pit and put some of that water in that pit of wood chips and let that denitrification process happen. And with both of those practices we can pull 40 to 60% of the nitrogen out of the system by doing it.
Yeah, and I mentioned being able to see these. Most of them you can’t see because they’re… but something like buffer strips, there’s buffer strips all over and I think that’s been a win-win. I think general public like to see them. They like to see the grass, that wildlife it’s good for. But what they don’t know is that it’s a little bit… my language now, but a little bit buffer strip 2.0, and taking buffer strips that have been around and now saying we’re going to saturate these. We’re going to run our tile drainage water through it and let all these grasses uptake the nitrogen. We’re seeing really great results from that, and I think it was a win-win. Now it’s kind of a win-win-win in this deal.
Keegan Kult (26:07):
Yeah, 2.0 is a great way to put it too, Jamie. We kind of had to go through, I don’t know if fights are the right word, but we had to get through some red tape to make these practices allowable because a lot of those filter strips. And we’ve done a great job of putting filter strips out in the landscape. There’s millions of acres of filter strips out there, millions of stream miles that have received these buffer strips. But we can add to it. We can pull nitrogen from the subsurfaces. Filter strips do a really good job at stopping surface runoff, distributing the flow of surface runoff, dropping sediment out and any nutrients that’s attached with that sediment. But something that’s moving below the ground, like nitrogen, that gets picked up by our tile lines, they don’t do as great of a job because they don’t get to interact, and now we can do that with this new system.
It took a little convincing to get everybody on board that, no, if it’s in a CRP program, it’s worth doing and allowing this practice to happen because now we’re just getting more benefit from that same area and we’re not asking… It’s not a big ask or as big of an ask. If that filter strip’s already in place, we’re not taking land out of production for that farmer. Like I mentioned earlier, we just need 30 feet of perennial vegetation, so even if there’s not one in place for a saturated buffer, a lot of times we can work with farmers on signing up for a CRP program for that 30 feet and they’re all right and willing to work with that.
Couple weeks ago, as you mentioned, I had Eric Snodgrass on the podcast and we talked, and you had him on a webinar a while back too, but talked about climate change and weather patterns. Talk to me a little bit about climate change and drainage water management, how they work together. What’s the relationship between the two, would you say?
Keegan Kult (27:56):
Well, yeah, I mean one of the biggest drivers, at least in here in the Midwest that we’re seeing are those wetter springs. And so that’s obviously one of the big reasons why we need to put the tiles out there in the first place is to get that spring field operation, to give the farmer confidence that he or she can get out there when they want to. I believe Eric gave the stats. We’ve lost four to five workable field days in Iowa and Illinois and probably other places in the Midwest too in the spring season.
So think about those workable field days, that’s when we need the drainage. But at the same time, we go into the summer and we’re seeing higher intensity rainfall events. So our rainfall totals might be the same or a little bit increased over the course of the year, but then we’re seeing longer stretches in between rains. We’ve all seen that where we get these big rainfall events, but then it shuts off and we don’t get anything for a long time and our crops get stressed. So with drainage water management, especially with automated drainage water management now, we can capture some of that water. We can allow that bounce to happen, store it in the profile, let that water soak up into the soil a little bit more and not worry about damaging our crops.
Isaac Ferrie from Crop Tech Consulting, he gives a really nice presentation. He works in Illinois and he was showing a pictures one year, can’t remember what year it was now, in his field, but they have the massive surface cracks that we all see, right, when you go out there. And he spoke about, well then we get a nice three-inch rain and those surface cracks can give a pretty direct path to that tile. So even though we got three inches of rain, they weren’t sealed up because everything went down too fast. But then on his drainage water management sites where you had the stop boards in place, it held that water back for a day or so and it sealed everything up and that’s where he saw that yield boost.
Yeah, it’s really interesting. I’ve been talking the last few days here in Minnesota, and I think it’s happening across the Midwest too, but how with this change that we’ve seen so many of the last 10 to 15 years, our springs have been cooler and wetter and our falls have been drier and warmer. And then we’ve had really nice summers, warm, consistent, we’ve gotten, for the most part. 2012, was 10 years ago already, but was a drought year. But the other ones, we’ve tipped on drought at times, but for the most part, rains have been timely or it’s been wet.
This year, in particular, we got planted so late, and yet the crop is coming out where if we don’t have significant rain here the next two to three weeks, we’re going to have most, if not all, of our harvest done in or before a normal time when it got planted so late. And when you think about that, it’s really kind of remarkable because it got planted so late, and if we would’ve had even two weeks in August or in June when it just was unseasonably cold, it probably would’ve really pushed that crop to a very late harvest. And yet, it all worked out. But part of that again, is this climate change thing in which we’re just consistently having these warmer, longer falls to get this stuff done, and it does relate to what we do.
Keegan Kult (31:27):
Yeah, definitely. The climate change is all about building that resiliency into the system, and so this is where soil health and water management kind of all come into play. That healthier soil profile helps you deal with those five less workable field days. We talk about for farmers a lot of times, even if you read the farm publications out there, that they talk to a champion farmer that’s done no-till for 15 years and has been doing cover crops for the past five, and it’s always kind of a little caveat at the bottom of the article. It’s like, “Well, I put a pattern tile system in two years before I started the no-till system,” because they want that confidence that they’re going to be dried out in the spring, and that’s what the tillage, of course, used to give them was to dry out that top layer, create that seed bed. And so it all interconnects and works together.
Yeah. Yeah, for sure. We’ve talked for years about the opportunity for around 30 million acres of land for practices that we promote, drainage water management and edge of field practices, things like that. How do you see that going? Are we gaining ground? I know for a long time, personally, frustrated that there just wasn’t more adoption of practices. Are we making progress, I guess is the question on that?
Keegan Kult (32:53):
I would say in pockets around the nation. I think states like Ohio and Indiana are probably doing a little bit better on that than some of the other states where there’s a high amount of acres that would fit for that drainage water management practice. I know Kent calls me all the time about those 30 million acres. And so, yeah, that’s something we think about. One of the things, and actually with the Conservation Drainage Network relationships that we’ve built, I think we really need to move forward with and studying, getting more of that agronomic response with drainage water management. It was a practice that when we first came out with it, we looked at, how do we make this as easy as possible for the farmer.
We had recommendations of changing those outlet height or the stop board settings four times throughout a season because we didn’t want a farmer to have to go back and forth to his field 10 times because we know that that wouldn’t happen. They would probably just open it up and leave it open. But now with automated structures where you can control that outlet height from your tablet, your phone, your laptop, inside your house, you know can check those water levels and get a little bit more aggressive with managing that. So we’re putting out some more kind of yield response studies on that. I think once that data comes out, that’ll be really attractive to the farmers.
We’re working with NRCS all the time on their programming to get some cost share and technical assistance available for these projects. But I really think once we get that yield story tied in with this that these things will go in, they’ll sell themselves even without federal programming. We might need some help still with the technical assistance to make sure systems get laid out correctly. But I think we’re on the cusp of seeing a lot of attention being paid to drainage water management and then a lot of adoption that will follow.
Do you see other barriers to farmers for these practices? You mentioned maybe a few of them, but in regards to DSPs, things like that, what barriers are out there that we can help remove?
Keegan Kult (35:05):
Yeah, so that technical service, it is a different layout. It’s not overly complicated to lay out a drainage water management system, but it might not be as simple as a conventional drainage system that gets put out there. We do a lot of work with educating contractors on that. The barriers, I think our contractors have a good grasp of these practices. Now it’s really time to start educating their customers on that because I think their customers will demand it, and then the contractors will want to do it. We all kind of do what our customers want us to do. So if the customer just asks for a conventional system, that’s what gets put out there when it could be an opportunity for these drainage water management systems. Getting back to these barriers, we still run into headaches every so often. So now, to write these plans, it’s called a drainage implementation activity with NRCS.
Keegan Kult (36:00):
So it’s fundable through equip actually for somebody to do a design. And they actually have really nice cost share rates for a designer to do this. However, now that it’s considered a design activity and not a plan, some states are requiring a PE stamp on this, which is a little bit of an overkill in my opinion. I think we need to figure out how to remove that PE stamp from it because this is something that contractors do all the time and obviously they don’t have that PE stamp and they’re more qualified than most to be able to do these designs. So those are conversations that we’re having. In states like Indiana and Ohio, they’re not requiring that PE stamp right now. So that might be why we’re seeing more of these acres go in there.
Yeah, it’s interesting that you mentioned that. Just this morning before the podcast, I was talking with some of our PEs at Prinsco about building a denitrification wetland on some of the property that I have. And their suggestion was, “Well, I think we should talk to the contractors that do this all the time.” And obviously we’re going to do that. That was my plan. But I wanted their advice and their advice really pushed it back on the contractors because in the PE where all this is, what we do is kind of unique. So you’re a hundred percent right on what you’re saying there.
Keegan Kult (37:28):
Yeah, and I think Charlie Schafer coined the term, some of the times it’s like requiring a dentist to brush your teeth. Some of these stuff like denitrifying a wetland, that might be a little bit different, that might be a little bit more designed evolving. These saturated buffers, it’s not that hard of a practice. And I kind of joke, you talked about in my intro there of developing three different conservation practice standards.
I got my start with the Iowa Soybean Association in 2008 and they happened to have a bioreactor project going. It was kind of the first demo field scale bioreactors that were going in and everybody else was fully employed so they gave the project to me when I came in and that’s kind of my first intro to drainage, but I worked with Dr. Laura Christensen and Matt Helmers, Dr. Matt Helmers on the first bioreactor.
They provided the design, but then they gave me the spreadsheet that was used and say, “Hey, you just need to find the grade of the tile, the main size, the material that it’s made out of, and then you can plug it into this spreadsheet and you could crank out some designs.” So I designed the next four bioreactors that went in and then I was soybean and myself, I was the one that went out there and collected all the data for three or four years monitoring. And then we provided all that data to the NRCS to come up with this standard.
And so it went from interim standard to an actual practice standard. But once it became a practice standard, I was no longer qualified to design them even though they’re based off of my designs to develop this standard. I worked myself out of a job there, so I was no longer qualified since I’m not a PE to go out there and do these bioreactor designs. So I always thought that was an interesting tidbit on how things work.
Yeah, yeah, for sure. For sure. You talked a little bit earlier on about cover crops and what effect do cover crops have on soil health and how does it relate to drainage water management and water quality?
Keegan Kult (39:21):
It can be a complete systems approach then. So cover crops do a great job if they’re out there, especially if you have those good growing seasons in the fall, like if we get a couple splashes of rain here, they’ll pop up if we keep this warm trend going on. They can utilize some of that nitrogen that’s left over in that soil profile, tie it up in the vegetation, putting organic matter back down into the top soil. That does things like improves that infiltration rate, kind of gives it a barrier. It does some weed control for everything else.
That drainage system, drainage helps you grow more corn and soybeans. Well, it does the same thing with cover crops. It improves that aeration in the soil so those cover crop stands can be actually be even healthier and you can get more biomass from your cover crop stands with that proper drainage system in place.
And you mentioned utilizing that not just with conventional drainage, both drainage water management. There’s actually going to be some research coming out of Ohio State of how to properly manage your drainage water management systems with cover crops in mind. Because right now when we think about drainage water management, we kind of shut that drainage off in the winter and bring that water table all the way up. And so we want to know that we’re not going to bring that water table up too high to maybe hinder the growth of those cover crops. So we might need to tweak that management just a little bit to make sure our cover crops are still going to be healthy moving forward.
Yeah, that’s interesting. I’m curious to see what some of those results are. I think that’s one area where mostly anybody involved in agriculture sees this coming and understands why on the cover crops. But I think it’s going to be another much easier story to tell to the general public because it’s going to be something they can see that what is, they’re used to seeing stands of commodity crops, whether it’s corn or soybeans out there and that they come out and they get planted in the spring and they grow in the summer and they get harvested in the fall.
But to see these cover crops out there is going to be something new for the general public. And I think if we missed the opportunity as an industry to tell the story on the why and how good it is for water quality and the environment and soil health, I think we’ve missed a big opportunity there because I think it’ll be easy to sell them on it.
Keegan Kult (41:42):
Yeah, and even it’s a great practice for farmers too because farmers like to grow things., right?
Keegan Kult (41:49):
Of course there’s a big change in their management, but they can see those results too. So it’s a little bit more tangible when they see that stand come up and so they definitely appreciate that.
Yeah, for sure. Well, Keegan, I’ve had a fun time visiting with you today and talking about ADMC and what you do and you’re pretty passionate about what your role within the agricultural industry and within drainage water management. And I think we all are really thankful to have you in that position and have somebody that’s passionate about telling the story. So thank you for that. And is there anything else you want to chat about here, kind of give you the last word here on The Water Table Podcast.
Keegan Kult (42:31):
No, just thanks for having me, Jamie. And there is tremendous support in this realm and I get support from all my members and our collaborators that we work with. And it might have started off as what seemed like a small niche, but I think these practices are really going to be taking off here in the very near future. We’re not just saying that anymore.
Those examples of that Polk County project, you had Jacob Handsaker on a year ago or so and he was going to put 50 of these on and now we put another 50 this year, so we’re up to a hundred just in Polk County. And in Iowa I could foresee we’re going to be putting probably 200 to 300 of these sites in throughout the state in the next couple years on an annual basis. And so we’re figuring that out. We’re going to expand into other states. We got the process down now and we’re ready to roll in other states because we think we can make it work.
Yeah, yeah, for sure. And yeah, it’s a good reminder that we probably need to get Jacob back on and do an update on how that went for him as a contractor and some of the results.
Keegan Kult (43:35):
He’s too busy putting in sites I think. I don’t know if he has time.
We’ll have to wait till winter for that one. But Keegan, it’s been really enjoyable to have you on and again, thankful for what you do in promoting these practices as ADMC being around. How long have you worked at ADMC?
Keegan Kult (43:53):
So I just rolled over four years I think. I think I started August of 2018. Doesn’t feel like that long.
You get to be in the fun part of when the real growth happens, but the organization formed and fledgling organization back from 2004 and for a while wondering when and why these things aren’t taken off faster. But like you said, I totally agree that we’re on the cusp of that and it’s on the horizon and it’s going to be really exciting to see these practices take hold, the results of these practices and then for the visionaries in this thing, the Charlie Schafer’s of the world that knew this was the right thing to do and knew it would work, some of the gratification in that, just not for them personally necessarily, but it’s really neat that they can see this happening and all of their vision and hard work kind of coming to life.
So thanks for your time on the podcast and look forward to visiting with you more in the future as we continue to tell our story.
Keegan Kult (45:00):
Yeah. Great. Thanks Jamie.
Yep. Appreciate it.
Thanks for joining us today on The Water Table. You can find us at watertable.egg. Find us on Facebook, you can find us on Twitter, and you can also find the podcast on any of your favorite podcast platforms.