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Field day demonstrates saturated buffer installation

Article cover photo
Contractors install a saturated buffer in a field on the Ken Fawcett farm near West Branch. The field day allowed farmers, landowners and other contractors see how this practice works to reduce nitrate in tile drained water. (Photo: Carol Brown/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Carol Brown, ISA environmental communications specialist

Doing whatever they can to keep soil in place and improving water quality is a top priority for landowner Ken Fawcett and his nephew Kent Stuart. The Fawcett family hosted a field day last week to demonstrate the installation of a saturated buffer on one of their farms near West Branch.

“Our family is always looking for different ideas to help conserve the soil and water,” said Stuart. “The saturated buffer idea came along, and I thought it was a great fit. The possibilities are — I wouldn’t say endless because there are places where these won’t work — but there are a lot of situations where a saturated buffer will work.”

A saturated buffer consists of a field tile line that has been diverted from emptying directly into a waterbody, but rather to another perforated tile running parallel to the stream. The tile water exits into the buffer between the field and the stream, saturating the soil in the buffer area and allowing excess nitrate to be taken up by the natural vegetation before entering the water.

“In this location, there’s two tile lines that drain about 80 acres,” said Stuart. “We tied the two lines together above the control structure, so now all the water goes through the structure and into the saturated line. When we go to farm it, we’ll pull the boards out from the control structure a couple weeks ahead of time. The water will drain down, so we’ll be able to farm it.”

Field day attendees got to watch the contractors in action running the tile line for the saturated buffer. The Iowa Land Improvement Contractors Association (LICA) wanted to use this installation as an educational opportunity for farmers and other contractors to see how these structures were put in. A field day was the perfect opportunity.  “That’s what this is all about — learning,” said Stuart.

The Fawcett family has been involved with conservation for a long time. The farm, established in 1851, has several practices in place for nutrient reduction and protection from soil erosion. They’ve been no-tillers since the 1970s and have been using cover crops for eight years. Grassed waterways, riparian buffers and areas of pollinator habitat are in place to help improve water quality and soil health on their land.

“The evolutionary step was to treat the water coming from the tile line,” Stuart said. “We considered a bioreactor, but the setup wasn’t ideal and was more suited for the saturated buffer.”

The installation location had an established riparian buffer with fully grown trees, which Stuart thought would be even better.

“It’s not necessary to have a riparian buffer for a saturated buffer, but it’s going to be beneficial as those trees suck a lot of moisture out as well as nitrate. We have other farms where we hope to add saturated buffers in the future as well,” he said.

To get the project going, Stuart talked with his friend and contractor Bruce Barnhart through LICA and Eric Brown with EB Drainage, who had previously done tile installations on the Fawcett farms. They got Stuart in touch with the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance (IAWA) and Agri Drain Corporation, who then connected him with Ecosystems Services Exchange (ESE), the designers for the buffer.

“It’s been a really good working relationship with all these people who are excited about this project,” Stuart said.

IAWA and LICA hosted the event. Other field day partners included Iowa Learning Farms, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), Agri Drain, ESE, Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Pork Producers Association, Iowa Corn and The Nature Conservancy in Iowa.

IAWA and LICA are hosting another field day on June 11 near Albert City that will be focused on a bioreactor installation. The field day will be on the Olie Leimer farm, 1598 Highway 3, beginning at 5:30 p.m. The event is free. For more information contact IDALS Environmental Specialist Lee Gravel at

Contact Carol Brown at

For media inquiries, permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at © 2020 Iowa Soybean Association. All rights reserved.