For many in southern Alberta irrigation has become a vital necessity they cannot do without in their crop planning and field rotation. This reliance on irrigation came about for good reasons, says Rod Bennett of Alberta Irrigation Technology Centre (AITC) near Lethbridge, and irrigation advances continue to pave the way for the future success of southern Alberta’s vital agriculture industry.
“All irrigation-related research is important because our water supply in southern Alberta is limited,” says Bennett. “We have just certain volume which is licenced for use by the irrigation districts, and by private irrigators.
“Most of our focus (at the AITC) has been working with the irrigation districts, and the main focus of my group, and the work we do at the irrigation technology centre is, with the use of on-farm irrigation systems: Trying to improve or adapt some of the technology that is available for irrigation, and trying to improve the efficiency of those systems in terms of both energy and water use.”
But the AITC’s work does not stop with local irrigators and irrigation districts, it is also on the cutting-edge in terms of testing the newest prototypes from irrigation system manufacturers at its 200 acre test site.
“We have worked with the irrigation manufacturers and dealers is we are using some software which has been developed for estimating crop water use,” explains Bennett. “Two of the three main manufacturers have worked with us over the last while to combine the use of our Alberta irrigation management model with latest control systems on our centre pivots.
“So we can pull information from the pivots, in terms of the numbers of hours they have operated, so from that you can estimate the depth which is applied and that can be factored into any precipitation you receive. Based on weather data we obtain from our network of weather stations throughout the irrigated area, we can estimate what the water use is for about 50 different crops.”
Some of those cutting-edge research projects include fostering greater improvements in watering efficiency through various testing programs, working with the latest, low pressure drip-nozzles and even developing data sets for sub-surface drop irrigation. Bennett explains further how local government research stations collaborate, sharing both knowledge and resources on projects such as these.
“One of the interesting projects at Brooks is looking at a sub-surface drop irrigation systems,” he explains. “There is a lot more interest in this type of system out there among irrigators. The technology has evolved significantly, and now they install the drip lines at 25-30 cm deep, and they space them more closely together.”
Bennett explains the genesis of the project.
“Our current test project is a seed alfalfa field. With field of any kind the activity of bees is effected by overhead sprinklers. Seed alfalfa producers came to us and asked us to try this sub-surface drip irrigation system… The hope is by using this kind of system, there would be less impact on the bees… It’s really kind of a no brainer, but we need to look at how well this works. There is some concern about the possibility of some salt moving up from the sub-soil, but, with proper management, so far, things look quite promising.”
There is still one major drawback with the system’s potential for widespread adoption amongst irrigators.
“The cost per acre is still quite significant,” he says. “It is a lot better than it was, but it is still a fair bit more expensive than a surface irrigation system. It makes sense in certain situations right now, but it is probably not for everybody yet.”
Another interesting project is one which will be starting up later this year with major irrigation technology manufacturer Bushland, TX.
“They have developed a prototype for a variable rate irrigation system, but it has sensors mounted on the pivot which can determine the crop stress. When used in conjunction with wireless soil-water sensors, they can detect the stress level of the crop and they can adjust the rate of flow for each bank of nozzles. Depending on what these sensors detect, the rate of flow can be adjusted on the fly,” explains Bennett.
In his 10 years of overseeing work at the AITC, Bennett says it has been his absolute pleasure to see in house research done back-when now being applied in the everyday agricultural practices of so many farm irrigators.
“Many of these irrigation users are very sophisticated in the use of this technology and Alberta Irrigation Management model,” Bennett confirms. “For example, we have one of the largest livestock producers in the Picture Butte area who manages 135 pivots from one control centre. He relies heavily on this irrigation management model, and the marriage between it and the control panels they operate.”
For more information on what the research the Alberta Irrigation Technology Centre does visit its website at www.demofarm.ca.