South­ern Al­berta soil comes in­side at Leth­bridge Col­lege to test ir­ri­ga­tion prop­er­ties

Prairie Post (West Edition) - - Agriculture -

Mul­ti­ple tonnes of south­ern Al­berta’s most com­mon soil types sit in­side three mas­sive, cus­tom-built wooden bins at Leth­bridge Col­lege. Housed in­side the col­lege’s In­no­va­tion Space in the Trades, Tech­nolo­gies and In­no­va­tion Fa­cil­ity, the soil is be­ing used to test sub­sur­face drip ir­ri­ga­tion (SDI) sys­tems – with­out the vari­able fac­tors of wind, rain or go­phers.

The ap­plied re­search project is led by Dr. Willemijn Ap­pels, the col­lege’s Mueller Ap­plied Re­search Chair in Ir­ri­ga­tion Science.

Al­falfa crops are be­ing grown, fu­eled by wa­ter de­liv­ered through be­low-the-sur­face pipes di­rectly to the al­falfa’s root zone. Sen­sors in the soil and Plex­i­glas win­dows on the bins give a rare look at how the wa­ter moves in var­i­ous soil types.

“You re­ally want to test sub­sur­face drip ir­ri­ga­tion in a rep­re­sen­ta­tive scale and you need quite a bit of soil to make sure that your wa­ter moves in a way that you could ex­pe­ri­ence in the field,” says Ap­pels. “We de­cided to cre­ate that ex­per­i­men­tal set­ting in­doors so we can do ex­per­i­ments year round and get 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.”

Three types of top soil - Grassy Lake sand, Lomond loam and Coal­dale clay – have been donated by lo­cal farm­ers to be used in the test­ing. Each bin is threeby-six me­tres and nearly a me­tre deep, giv­ing Ap­pels the abil­ity to cre­ate an al­most per­fectly con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment to test sub­sur­face drip ir­ri­ga­tion. SDI is rel­a­tively new to south­ern Al­berta, but it has ex­isted for decades in coun­tries with wa­ter scarcity, and its main ben­e­fit is ef­fi­ciency.

“In Al­berta, we have some weird lit­tle cor­ners or parcels here and there that could use a dif­fer­ent type of ir­ri­ga­tion and are not au­to­mat­i­cally suited to pivot ir­ri­ga­tion,” says Ap­pels. “If you could make sub­sur­face ir­ri­ga­tion work on those, eco­nom­i­cally as well as from the agro­nomic or ir­ri­ga­tion per­spec­tive, then that could be re­ally in­ter­est­ing.”

Sub­sur­face drip ir­ri­ga­tion hap­pens en­tirely out of sight, so it can feel like a leap of faith for farm­ers who are ac­cus­tomed to see­ing piv­ots de­liver wa­ter in an ob­vi­ous spray. That's why Ap­pels' re­search is so im­por­tant to the lo­cal in­dus­try.

“This re­search is teach­ing and train­ing grow­ers to re­ally know their soils and how their soils work with a to­tally dif­fer­ent way of ir­ri­ga­tion,” says Marc Jonger­den, in­stal­la­tion man­ager with South­ern Ir­ri­ga­tion, the col­lege's part­ner in this en­deav­our. “We be­lieve in this and we know this will be one of the sys­tems for the fu­ture. We be­lieve in it for wa­ter us­age, to spread the wa­ter more ef­fi­ciently and to open up more acres.”

The one-year re­search project has sup­port from South­ern Ir­ri­ga­tion, and fund­ing from a $50,000 Nat­u­ral Sciences and Engi­neer­ing Re­search Coun­cil of Canada (NSERC) Ap­plied Re­search and De­vel­op­ment grant, and an­other $20,000 from the Regional In­no­va­tion Net­work of South­ern Al­berta.

“NSERC is pleased to sup­port this col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Leth­bridge Col­lege and its in­dus­trial part­ners,” says Marc Fortin, VP, Re­search Part­ner­ships at NSERC. “The col­lege is us­ing its ex­per­tise in ir­ri­ga­tion science to help pro­vide in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions for lo­cal small and medium-sized en­ter­prises.

This project lever­ages ear­lier in­vest­ments of more than $2.17 mil­lion through a 2014 In­no­va­tion En­hance­ment grant from the Col­leges and Com­mu­nity In­no­va­tion pro­gram. This grant en­abled Leth­bridge Col­lege to build ap­plied re­search ca­pac­ity and en­hance its ex­per­tise in aquapon­ics, aqua­cul­ture and agri­cul­ture. NSERC wishes the col­lege con­tin­ued suc­cess in its re­search ef­forts.”

Ap­pels’ po­si­tion was cre­ated as part of a $3.1 mil­lion gift from Lloyd and Dorothy Mueller, an­nounced in 2014. More in­for­ma­tion about her on­go­ing re­search pro­jects is avail­able on­line.

More in­for­ma­tion about ap­plied re­search at Leth­bridge Col­lege can be found on the Cen­tre for Ap­plied Re­search and In­no­va­tion’s web page.

Pho­tos con­trib­uted

Three soil types are be­ing tested on this wooden bin which is in the In­no­va­tion Space within the Trades, Tech­nolo­gies and In­no­va­tion Fa­cil­ity.

DR. WILLEMIJN AP­PELS

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