April 22nd, 2024

Irrigation technology changing with the times

By Al Beeber - Lethbridge Herald on February 29, 2024.

Herald photo by Al Beeber Mike Neels of Southern Irrigation shows a sample set-up of an underwater drip irrigation system at Ag-Expo Wednesday.

LETHBRIDGE HERALDabeeber@lethbridgeherald.com

“Drought, “water conservation” – three words that Albertans are hearing more after a hot dry summer in 2023 and a winter of relatively low moisture.

And with the farming season soon to ramp up, those three words will be even more emphasized as communities across the province contend with their impacts.

Irrigators use a considerable amount of water in their efforts to grow crops that keep consumers around the world fed.

And ever-improving irrigation technology is reducing the amount of water being used as visitors to Ag-Expo will hear if they visit some of the booths selling irrigation equipment.

The annual agricultural trade show opened its doors Tuesday at the new Agri-Food Hub and Trade Centre for the first time. And irrigation supply companies were among the many which had booths at the show.

Modern methods of irrigation vary and include traditional pivot sprinkler systems as well as subsurface lines – similar to those used for watering residential yards and gardens.

Mike Neels of Lethbridge-based Southern Irrigation sells subsurface systems which can have 2.2 million feet of line in a single field, providing water to plant root systems. Fertilizer can also be applied through these systems, as well, getting nutrients directly to plants with no concerns about leeching into ground water or evaporating.

Subsurface systems, says Neels, can increase crop yields while using less water than traditional pivots.

Subsurface drip irrigation, says Neels, involves putting drip lines about 12 inches deep underground. At the head of a field, is the main line and sub main with valves. At the back of a field is a flush line.

“The cool thing is that we can use the same amount of water that your pivot puts down for your entire feet at gallons per minute, we can reach all of your corners,” using the same number of gallons per minute with no evaporation loss.

In 2001 during a dry summer, Southern Irrigation had a section field going and the farmer used 10.5 inches of water “to fill up his entire profile to grow an optimal group and then to fill up in the fall to refill his profile,” said Neels.

The farmer had other pivots in that area which used 17 inches of water with none of them getting a good crop, Neels said.

One grower for the past five years has seen an average 13.5 per cent increase in yield compared to his pivots, he said.

“You use less water and you grow more,” he added.

The subsurface system is best used in no-till fields because of the potential to cut through the lines, he says.

In fall, lines have to be blown clear of remaining water just like in residential underground sprinkler systems.

Each system comes with a solar panel and a radio system communicates with the controller to turn valves on and off.

“In season it’s one of the easiest systems to run,” he added, noting starting is a bit more work than a pivot.

I-Beam Irrigation of Taber provides irrigation equipment, parts and services to farms in Alberta as well as B.C. and Saskatchewan and has staff who will come to properties to find solutions to issues affecting production.

It sells telemetry products as well as pivots. The company has been in business for more than 30 years and now has a Brooks location as well.

It’s the only authorized dealer in Alberta for Pierce and I-Feeder. It also sells ViviGro organic fertilizers which aim “to protect the soil so that it continues to provide nutrients for crops in a sustainable way.”

Kelsey Dortman of I-Beam said modern irrigation systems are designed to be as efficient as possible.

“Technology’s improved incredibly, ten-fold” over the years, he said.

“Everything is designed to utilize the water as professionally and the most efficiently as possible,” Dortman added.

“With one sprinkler company, the drops are designed for every factor involved including soil type, the types of weather that we have, the temperatures that we have, the wind that we have. Everything’s designed around getting the water to the product as efficiently as possible. It’s big enough that it’s going to hit the ground without blowing away, without drift and it’s small enough that when it hits the ground, it won’t pool and run, compared to the old days where they did flooding. They just dug a ditch and filled that ditch and put notches in it so it ran to another ditch. When that ditch filled up, they put notches in that so it ran to another ditch. . .whatever that was left over at the end was just wasted,” he said.

“There are systems in place now that will guarantee you the exact amount of moisture in every portion of the field everywhere. The technology available to apply water to the product is unreal,” he added.

On a quarter section (160 acres), a typical irrigation solution is a seven-tower pivot, he said. Some producers farm 60,000 acres in the area, he noted.

One pivot can use upwards of 1,000 gallons per minute which will put one to two inches of water onto the ground at a time.

Ag-Expo gives the company a chance to not only see its regular clients but also meet new ones.

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