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 three-by-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.”
More information about applied research at Lethbridge College can be found on the Centre for Applied Research and Innovation’s web page.
LISTEN - Dr. Willemijn Appels, Mueller Applied Research Chair in Irrigation Science, describes her research in subsurface drip irrigation: