LETHBRIDGE – Can crops be watered from below the surface?
Subsurface drip irrigation, or SDI, systems are the subject of a study underway at Lethbridge College’s Trades, Technologies, and Innovation Facility. Dr. Willemijn Appels is leading a team growing alfalfa crops in three different types of soil, delivering water right to the root zone with pipes below the surface.
Area farmers have donated multiple tonnes of soil, divided into three topsoil types: Grassy Lake sand, Lomond loam, and Coaldale clay. In a news release, Appels explained it takes a lot of soil to provide a representative scale. The experiment removes variables such as weather and pests
SDI, used in other parts of the world where water is scarce, is described as more efficient.
"It's used, widely, in semi-arid areas where people really have to use their water very wisely," Appels explained. "Think Israel or the drier parts of the States. And it's especially used on high-value crops: vegetables, vineyards, orchards, that kind of thing."
Appels said it’s a leap of faith for farmers used to seeing an above-ground spray of water in their fields from traditional pivot irrigation. But there are some parts of Alberta where standard irrigation isn’t necessarily suitable, and this could be an alternative if it can be made to work economically.
"You can't really test it in a bucket. You really want to test it in sort of a representative scale. You need quite a bit of soil in order to make sure that your water moves in a way that you could encounter in the field as well," she said.
"We decided to create that indoors, to be able to do experiments year-round, and to have a better look in fine detail at what happens with the water and the crops when you're irrigating them from within the root zone."
The one-year project is being funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada with a $50,000 grant, along with $20,000 from the Regional Innovation Network of Southern Alberta. The college has partnered with Southern Irrigation.
Appels is the Mueller Applied Research Chair in Irrigation Science, a position created thanks to a $3.1 million gift from Lloyd and Dorothy Mueller.
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