Canal systems, subsurface drip, and variable rate: A look at irrigation research

(Kara Oosterhuis/RealAgriculture)

Lethbridge College has been busy digging in to new research initiatives, including work into irrigation.

The Mueller Irrigation Research Group at the college, headed up by Dr. Willemijn Appels, has been focusing on three main areas of precision irrigation as of late: canal systems, subsurface drip irrigation, and variable rate irrigation.

Appels spoke recently at the Irrigated Crop Production Update (ICPU) at Lethbridge, Alta., to discuss some of the current research, and how it impacts farmers — even if you currently don’t have irrigation on your farm.

Since the demo farm in Lethbridge has made the transition from Alberta Agriculture and Irrigation, to being operated by the Lethbridge College, a lot of the last two years have been trying to get their footing, says Appels, but they are certainly making strides.

“All the projects [on the go] currently now have results that made us curious about the next year. So I’m excited to do things again, and measure more. I’m a researcher — I like to get more numbers,” she emphasizes.

Watch the full conversation between Appels and RealAgriculture’s Kara Oosterhuis, filmed at ICPU, or check out a quick summary of the three projects, below:

Demo Canal

  • One of longstanding features of the demo farm, is a miniature canal
  • It shows when water is released from the reservoir to the farm gate, what you can do to manipulate the right amount of water in the right direction
  • It’s got control systems, gates, different types of flumes, measurement equipment
  • In irrigation you want to know how much water is coming in, and how much is going through your canal, to make sure that it doesn’t overflow, and reaches the right farmers at the right moment
  • There’s screening gates, for different ways you can remove algae and plant material
  • There are pipe sizes on farms as well to demonstrate some of the irrigation modernization systems that are being looked at

Subsurface Drip Irrigation (SDI)

  • Where you bury lines into the ground permanent that release water very slowly at different locations along a big rubber or plastic line
  • Less water loss due to wind or interception between sprinkler and crop
  • It also allows nutrients to be targeted straight at the root zone through fertigation
  • You have to be not daunted by the fact that you’re going to plow in lines every other meter basically
  • The lines tie in manually into a mainline at the end of your field
  • Still early adopter stage, but becoming more and more popular
  • If you can use the system to make management easier, or by adding value through fertilizer or other equipment/products, your return on investment is there
  • At the moment it’s not simpler than pivot operations, you just need a different set of skills

Variable Rate Irrigation (VRI)

  • VRI is a thread that has run through a lot of projects at the college, as its interconnected to many things
  • Improves water use
  • The availability of water within a field can vary quite a bit
  • Even in low topography settings, you have highs and lows that are varying in water contents throughout the season
  • The sensors that they’re testing are able to send a much larger area than your typical moisture sensors that are buried underground
  • They give you a better image of what’s happening across your entire field as opposed to what’s happening in one particular place
  • Testing as included manipulating some extreme weather events — very dry, and very wet, the sensors pick these up quite well
  • Using that information as a base map to start adjusting your irrigation prescription if you have that capacity is within the realm of possibilities
  • These sensors are still mostly early stages, but is definitely catching on more as well


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