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Mizzou Engineering helping build better farms

Cropland terraces, such as those recognizable as tilled areas above, have slashed Missouri's soil erosion rate over the years. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service

Missouri cropland soon may be a bit greener thanks to an engineering researcher’s work on a computer-assisted terrace design program.

Allen Thompson, a Mizzou biological engineering associate professor, is developing a Web-based system to help design farm terraces that prevent water from eroding steep and hilly croplands. Coupled with new computerized topographical information, the program would produce more alternative terrace layouts in a fraction of the time that manually devised plans require, Thompson said.

“The goal is for a person to be able to sit down at a computer and lay out several terrace options…in an hour or so,” Thompson said.

Thompson and MU Soil Science Professor Clark Gantzer in September received a $46,528 grant for their work on the terrace program from the Missouri branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The Missouri Department of Natural Resources provided $91,985 to finance the research from 2006 to 2008.

Missouri’s $6.92 billion agricultural industry uses terraces—that is, row upon row of carefully laid out earthen embankments—to prevent soil erosion, which can reduce farm productivity by washing away valuable topsoil and polluting rivers and lakes. Missouri has on average spent more than $8 million a year on terrace construction for the last 10 years—nearly half the state’s average annual spending on all soil conservation construction projects during that decade, said Bill Wilson, deputy director for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Soil and Water Conservation Program.

The investment has paid off. While Missouri’s soil erosion rate was among the highest in the nation during the 1980s, soil conservation techniques such as terrace construction have cut the amount of soil lost each year by more than half, according to the state’s soil and water conservation program.

But terrace design is time consuming. Richard Purcell, the state conservation engineer for the Missouri NRCS who helps area farmers prepare terrace plans, said it can take government experts an entire day to determine exactly where to place terraces within a 20-acre field.

The program on which Thompson is working will cut back on that time by taking information about a farm—such as its perimeter, the area to be terraced and data on how water flows on the property—and quickly producing several possible ways to lay out terraces. Because developing layouts is so labor intensive, NRCS experts generally rely on a single design, Purcell said. With the terrace design program’s options, Purcell said the NRCS will be better able to select the most efficient and cost-effective layout.

As it lays out the terraces, the program will help determine the best locations to collect and drain water, tell users how far apart channels and berms should be and possibly provide specific heights and dimensions for the berms, Thompson said. Soil and water conservation efforts should both benefit, he said.

“This system should provide a simple way to help produce farmable terrace designs acceptable to landowners and conservationists alike,” Thompson said.

Used in tandem with Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) remote sensing information, the program has the potential to bring terrace design from the field into the office, Purcell said. Thirteen of Missouri’s 114 counties have LIDAR’s topographical data available, and another four have contracts to obtain it, he said.

With LIDAR data, “we’ll be able to actually lay the thing out—one time—in the right spot,” Purcell said.

Thompson currently is refining the program so that it will produce plans with acceptable slopes as it smooths any sharp curves along the terrace placement, ensuring that the layouts are in accord with farm practices. He said he also is working to make the program flexible enough to account for different conditions or slopes in different parts of the field.

Thompson plans to deliver the program to the NRCS by the end of this July.