Protect waterways until grass grows

Not everyone reads the instruction manuals that come with new things. Some people don’t pay attention to the advice of technical experts, either. Usually, those people get burned. Once in a while they get lucky.

A few years ago a farmer and his partner decided to seed a wide, long grass waterway in early July, primarily because that’s when the contractor finished it. Seeding in July goes against every recommendation any respectable authority would make. They fertilized it, selected the seeding mix and seeded it anyway.

Since North American Green, Evansville, the world’s largest supplier of rolled conservation mat products, wasn’t in business yet, they used straw bales. Since they were too cheap to rent a straw chopper, like the one you can rent from the Ripley County Soil and Water Conservation District for this purpose, they spread straw by hand.

Key Points

Odds are against establishing cover on new waterways in midsummer.

Erosion control blankets are a convenient way of protecting base until grass grows.

Waterways should be designed to handle peak flow from once-in-10-years storm


They ended up with a tremendous waterway, but only by the grace of God. It rained 2 inches over the 10 days after seeding, with no gully washers. The straw held the soil and protected the seed until it germinated and came up. If someone had tried this stunt last year, it likely would have been a disaster.

One popular option today is to use conservation mats, commercially available and made of straw and netting, to help protect the base of the grass waterway until the grass gets established. Follow proper seeding times recommended by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or other experts, for establishing grass.

Judi Brown, district coordinator at the Dubois County Soil and Water Conservation District, reports that there’s enough demand in their area that the district owns two staplers designed for use in stapling erosion mats to the ground. Each stapler rents for $20 per day. Borrowers are required to buy staples for the stapler. A box of 1,000 costs $80. Securing the mat so it can do its job is one of the secrets to avoiding washouts should a big rain occur before the grass gets established.

If you work with NRCS to plan the waterway, you’ll be expected to follow certain design criteria. Following these criteria is usually part of the qualifications for receiving cost-share payments from the Farm Service Agency if you’re installing the waterway as part of the continuous Conservation Reserve Program or as a practice in a long-term contract with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

NRCS says minimum capacity of the waterway “shall convey the peak runoff expected from the 10-year frequency, 24-hour storm duration.” Also expect NRCS technicians to add extra space to the waterway to account for sediment that could build up in the waterway between maintenance operations.

Sometimes waterways don’t have much fall over part of their run. If the slope is less than 1%, out-of-bank flow is permitted under NRCS standards, as long as it doesn’t cause excessive erosion. However, the goal is to remove water before crops would be damaged.

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Locked down: The bottom of this waterway is protected until grass grows by rolled straw matting. This waterway was established in Dubois County.

This article published in the July, 2011 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.