Am I Farming or Excavating: What’s the Difference?

Every day, farm and ranch activities pose a safety risk to our buried infrastructure. Today’s equipment is more powerful and can dig deeper. At the same time, erosion and terrain modifications can reduce the soil covering a pipeline or cable. Even the weight of farm equipment can pose a risk to these essential buried utilities.

Most states provide a narrow exemption to their One-Call law for “normal” farm or ranch activities. One of the keys to safe digging is understanding the difference between farming and excavating. The examples on this list may seem like everyday farm or ranch work, but they are classified as excavation and according to state laws, require contacting 811 prior to beginning work:

  • Fence installation or post replacement
  • Augering
  • Drain tiling
  • Terracing
  • Grading
  • Contouring
  • Ripping
  • Deep tilling
  • Deep soil sampling
  • Tree and stump removal
  • Clearing, grubbing or stripping topsoil
  • Ditch cleaning
  • Installing cattle guards, dams, or dugouts
  • Trenching water lines from a well to a stock tank
  • Burying livestock
  • Maintaining, building, or repairing roads

Even farm activities such as discing, leveling, plowing, planting, cultivating, or harvesting can impact buried utilities. Many of these activities are considered excavations in most states. However, if they occur at depths no greater than 12 inches, they may be considered farming or ranching (state laws vary – visit the directory beginning on page 27 for information on your state’s dig law requirements).

Terrain modifications at any depth should be preceded by contacting 811 as the depth of a pipe or cable can change over time. Pipeline operators may come out and verify the depth of the utility before and after the work to ensure your safety. If there is ever a question, contact 811 to be safe. The request is free, and the utility companies will be glad you did. Representatives are always happy to talk about how you can operate safely around pipelines and cables. Utility operators are committed to working with farmers, ranchers, and local extension agents to help keep our nation’s communities, infrastructure, and land safe and productive.

Our nation’s farmlands have miles of pipeline and cable running beneath them, making it vital to practice safe digging. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline; Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), there are 2.6 million miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid transportation pipelines in America. Now combine that number with the millions of producers working in fields across the country, and it leads to a lot of digging over millions of miles of infrastructure.

To help protect our infrastructure, every state has One Call laws to keep these buried utilities safe. These laws require contractors, farmers, ranchers, homeowners, and anyone preparing to create a ground disturbance to contact 811 at least 2-3 days before starting their project (state laws vary – visit the directory beginning on page 27 for information on your state’s legal wait time). 811 is a free, national 3-digit number you can call from anywhere in the United States to request the approximate location of buried utilities be marked. Most notification centers also offer the ability to submit a digital request online through their website.

After receiving your locate request, the One-Call center will notify any facility owner who may have buried utilities within the dig area. They will send a locate technician out to place paint and/or flags on the ground to mark the approximate location of their facilities in the dig area. Each facility owner may send their own technician so be sure all facility owners have responded before beginning your dig project. Farms and ranches often have buried private utilities, like propane lines or outbuilding lights, that are not marked by contacting 811. For your safety, and the safety of these utilities, a private utility locator should be contracted to mark these lines.

Once marked, the paint and/or flags should be respected. Use care when working near a utility. Do not use mechanical equipment within 18-24” from the outer edge of a pipeline in all directions (state laws vary – visit the directory beginning on page 27 for information on your state’s tolerance zone). Hand digging is required when excavating within this area. If your digging project is on or near a pipeline right-of-way or easement, a company representative will likely be onsite during the project. If you expose a utility, a company representative may request to inspect the pipeline or cable before you backfill.

The article was published on Excavation Safety, 6, p. 15. A special thanks to Whitney Price, Pipeline AG Safety Alliance

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