When it comes to growing crops, every drop of water counts.

Irrigation researchers at Lethbridge College have long been working on optimizing the amount off water needed to grow crops in a variety of fields, but new funding will allow the team to get a more accurate view of how much moisture is present below the surface, with a goal of allowing producers to adjust irrigation on the fly. The project is funded by Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR).

Dr. Willemijn Appels, Lethbridge College’s Mueller applied research chair in irrigation science, has received more than $420,000 for the new three-year project. The research will use microwave radiometer technology to create maps of the water in soil that is available to plants and translate that data to adjust how much water is added through irrigation.

Appels has previously worked with Skaha Remote Sensing, the B.C. manufacturer of this technology, and learned it can map moisture in the top 60 centimetres of the soil. She says this technique gives farmers a map of the moisture in an entire area, instead of just a point of observation you get when you install something in the ground.

“It gives promise that you can adjust your irrigation water management to match what is already present in the ground, and actually adjust while the pivot is moving because the sensor is located on top of the pivot,” Appels says. “Ideally, in the future, the sensors would be used to estimate soil moisture conditions just ahead of the sprinklers. Then after doing some calculations the amount of water the sprinklers put on would be adjusted while the pivot is moving.”

Currently, most producers base their irrigation levels on a rough classification of available moisture, based on general soil texture classifications. The data collected in this study aims to provide a more precise and repeatable measurement to take some of the guess work out of irrigation.

The project begins this spring and takes place on the Alberta Irrigation Technology Centre (AITC) management site, which was transferred to Lethbridge College by the Government of Alberta in October. It is one of the first major collective projects to take place at the AITC since the college assumed management, and the site will allow Appels to expand her research capabilities.

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