Long established land drainage contractor Farm Services has seen renewed interest in the benefits of its services, as soil health continues to gain greater significance on farmers’ agendas. Jane Carley reports.
The soggy winter of 2019/20 proved a mixed blessing for Warwickshire land drainage contractor Farm Services.
While the conditions confined people and machines to barracks for a few weeks, it also focused farmers’ minds on soils and drainage.
The first lockdown then brought, fortunately unfounded, concerns about quarry closures, along with a swift reorganisation of working procedures so that every operator had their own vehicle and machine.
Managing director Rob Burtonshaw says: “We have got a selection of old gravel carts and other equipment that my father bought up from other contractors in the 1990s and many were put back into service.”
A lack of confidence also seemed to affect customers for a time, with cancelled contracts especially among estates which rely on diversifications, construction and sports fields work for a large proportion of their income.
But as the year progressed they were replaced by new enquiries and business was brisk.
“Poorer weather helps drive business in the longer term, rather than providing an immediate boost,” says Mr Burtonshaw. “Farm drainage is a 30-year project for many landowners and low yields are more important than a couple of weeks of wet conditions.”
While post-harvest remains the busy period, the broad range of crops grown means this extends from July to October, while pre-spring drilling is another good time to drain land.
“If the crop is poor or has failed it may be a better investment to use the summer months to drain the field while it is standing,” he says.
The post-war period was the boom time for land drainage and in the 1970s and 1980s Maff (now Defra) grant funding enabled farmers to invest in new or refurbished drainage systems.
“Adas figures collected for Maff show that 100,000ha of land a year was drained in the late 1970s, but by the early 1990s it was less than 10ha a year,” says Mr Burtonshaw.
“There was very little land drainage carried out until interest in soil health really took off in the last decade.”
This coincided with one of the wettest summers on record in 2012, when business for the company, which had diversified into sports field and utilities work and begun a marketing drive to keep going, suddenly saw an upturn.
At the same time, Mr Burtonshaw decided to undertake a Nuffield scholarship to see how different techniques around the world could benefit the business.
“I realised I had little knowledge of how our contemporaries in different countries worked,” he says.
“And I was particularly interested in how GPS could increase the accuracy of drainage.”
What he found was akin to visiting another planet, he says.
“In the USA contractors had all the latest kit and were universally using tech such as GPS grade control and surveying,” he says.
“As the areas being drained were so large, machines offered much higher outputs than I was accustomed to.”
He also discovered extensive research work being carried out, with many universities offering courses for the study of land drainage.
Further travels led him to the Netherlands which has a well-established drainage industry for obvious reasons, and he found on his return to the UK that there was a demand for the information gleaned which he has continued to share with farmers.
From a business perspective, the most significant impact was the study’s influence on Farm Services’ move to GPS grade control.
“It is easier to set up than laser and once it is done there is no downtime from having to repeatedly move the laser,” he says.
“While there is not a huge difference on 200-500m projects, on bigger jobs the savings add up.”
More recently Mr Burtonshaw has taken the plunge of investing in a Mastenbroek 40/20i trencher, the first of its kind in England.
“This is drainage plough, a design that is used for the majority of the pipework done outside the UK,” he explains.
“In the UK, we have stuck with the chain trencher design, mainly because it is more versatile, so could be used when our industry was forced to diversify into sports field and construction work in the 1990s.
“It is also more suitable for smaller jobs. But for larger contracts a plough can work at 4kph compared with 2kph. You can really move on in large fields.
“It is the one machine that helped us meet the demand that we saw this year.”
Software continues to develop at a pace and Trimble’s drainage add-on for the Farmworks package has proved a real asset.
“We use a compact tractor fitted with the Trimble display to survey the field, and can create many more survey points than would be possible manually,” Mr Burtonshaw says.
“We can add contour lines, watersheds and tributary lines which indicate where water flows, all of which can be viewed in 3D in the office or on a device in the field.
“This allows us to compare the survey with the actual view of the field, and the drainage plan is then simply downloaded into the plough which works on autosteer to follow the pattern.”
Traditional materials still rule, however.
Recycled backfill products are used where possible, but patchy supply means they cannot be relied on, and since plastic pipe replaced clay, it has remained the same, although mechanised handling of the reels on the biggest trenchers cuts manual effort.
Mr Burtonshaw is also following trials on improving water quality pioneered in research at Illinois State University, which he first learned about during the Nuffield scholarship era, and now beginning in the UK.
“The aim is to reduce nitrates present in drainage water and thus potentially entering the environment,” he says.
“This can be achieved simply and efficiently by filtering through bioreactors consisting of woodchip filled trenches at the outlet, and the UK trials aim to establish what the ideal particle size is for our drainage systems.
“It is cheap and long lasting and further enhances the green credentials of land drainage.
“While the carbon footprint of installation is high, the systems are long lasting and help to make better use of the land.”
Model: Mastenbroek 40/20i
Weight: 30 tonnes
Pipe dimensions: 60mm, 80mm, 100mm or 160mm
Maximum working depth: 1.8m
Engine: 428hp, Stage V, Volvo Penta
Fuel tank: 700 litres
Blade: Double parallelogram with slew and tilt control
Grade control: Laser or RTK GPS
Track length: 6.4m
Overall length: 13.1m
Price: (including Trimble GPS) £420,000
Where farms invested heavily in drainage during the grant schemes in the 1980s, infrastructure is now up to 40 years old and may now be starting to fail, Mr Burtonshaw says. “Farms are trying a number of soil improvement techniques such as using cover crops. While you are seeing improved soil structure, if the land still lies wet, it is time to revisit the drainage.”
Maintaining ditches and outlets is the first course of action, he suggests. “Dig the ditches and find the outlets – this will often solve the problem. We can bypass or repair a blockage where a drain has collapsed which can make a real difference, taking the field back into profit again. But if there are multiple blockages, repair costs will be too high and a new installation is needed.”
Mr Burtonshaw says that as drainage installations were done on a huge scale in the 19th century and more followed in the grant-funded years of the 20th century, there is little farmland which does not have a drainage scheme. “It is just a matter of finding it. Documentation may be on old plans or evidence of outlets can be found in the field itself,” Mr Burtonshaw says. “A drainage contractor’s experience of reading the lie of the land will usually indicate where the drains are.”
The signs can often be seen in the field. In spring, crop growth will be strongest along the drainage lines. “Google Earth is another good resource, especially as you can search images of a particular field at different times of year or in different parts of the rotation,” Mr Burtonshaw adds.
He suggests that farmers look at which fields or parts of fields that can benefit the most from drainage. “Sometimes draining one small area can improve the performance of the whole field and take that crop back into profit."
Drainage can give dramatic results, he points out. “We have one customer who purchased a grass farm which he is converting to arable and he has 20-30ha drained per year. Fields which were sodden and had standing water in them become productive and green by the time we return the following year.”