Subsurface drip irrigation lines are installed on Lethbridge College’s irrigation research farm in summer 2021. (Photo by Tyler Waldron)

A growing research partnership between Lethbridge College and Southern Irrigation will provide valuable insight that could help producers maximize their crop production. The college and Southern Irrigation are studying the opportunities created by subsurface drip fertigation (SDF), a method that applies water and fertilizer directly to the rootzones of plants through a series of pipes.

The research project is ramping up, as this past summer, Lethbridge College and Southern Irrigation installed 15 acres of subsurface drip piping on 21 individually controlled zones at the college’s irrigation research farm. The project is significant to this multi-year collaboration as it has graduated to a field-scale study after starting as a small-scale research project in three custom boxes inside the college’s on-campus innovation space.

Dr. Willemijn Appels, Senior Research Chair in Irrigation Science, Lethbridge College

Lethbridge College’s research is led by Dr. Willemijn Appels, who was recently promoted to Senior Research Chair in Irrigation Science in the college’s Centre for Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CARIE) and Dr. Rezvan Karimi Dehkordi, research associate on the Irrigation Science team. This work follows up on an earlier project Dr. Dehkordi undertook on a commercial farm near Lomond, Alta. in 2019 and 2020. The first phase of the partnership is funded in part by a $105,500 grant from Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR) and the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) and will study SDF on two crops.

“With this study, we’ll get data about water use, fertilizer use and crop yields, as well as information on how the water and nutrients move into the rootzone that will allow us to create numerical and empirical models of the field, basically showing us exactly how our field works, which sets the baseline for future experiments,” says Appels. “The funding from RDAR and CAP is the support we needed to get this work going. And it’s nice to have this partnership and a direct link to Southern Irrigation, a company with a vested interest in finding new questions and answering them.”

By partnering with experts from Southern Irrigation, Lethbridge College can access nearly 40 years of technical expertise from a company that is connected to industry and is able to communicate the needs of producers into meaningful applied research opportunities.

Corn grows on a field using subsurface drip irrigation at Lethbridge College’s irrigation research farm.

“Southern Irrigation is happy to partner with Lethbridge College to research SDF as we both strive to explore and research intelligent water solutions,” says Kees Van Beek, SDI specialist at Southern Irrigation. “We hope that these research projects with Lethbridge College will help farmers and the agriculture industry boost yields by using SDF effectively on crops typically grown in the Canadian prairies.”

The college acquired management of the irrigation research farm from the Government of Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in October 2020. Previously, field-scale research had to be conducted on private farms on plots donated by generous producers. Now, with control over the research plots, Appels has the opportunity to run substantial year-over-year studies.

“This investment will enhance productivity of irrigated land, improve efficiency of on-farm irrigation systems, water conservation and environmental stewardship,” says Clinton Dobson, Director of Research, RDAR. “Outcomes from this research will boost the adoption of subsurface drip fertigation and subsurface drip irrigation technology use in southern Alberta – growing our province’s agriculture potential.”

Subsurface drip irrigation lines are installed on Lethbridge College’s irrigation research farm in summer 2021. (Photo by Tyler Waldron)

Since joining Lethbridge College in 2016, Appels has been able to make connections with industry partners and get to know the irrigation sector and its needs in southern Alberta. She has scaled up her initial research from lab tests to longer term studies in the college’s innovation space to now working for years to come on field-scale tests at the research farm.

“We would like to figure out how well we can deliver a substantial amount of fertilizer through SDF under varying weather conditions and what the effects are of varying the timing of fertilizer application with crop growth stage,” says Appels. “This short-term project has helped us do a trial season with the SDI system (in 2021) and will get us started on a longer-term fertigation research project.”

Learn more about the project, titled “Investigating water and nutrient management strategies for field crops under subsurface drop irrigation in Albertaon the RDAR website.

About Lethbridge College

Agriculture research teams at Lethbridge College operate with support from the Integrated Agriculture Technology Centre (IATC) within the Centre for Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The IATC connects small- and medium-sized enterprises in the agriculture industry with the technologies and research expertise at Lethbridge College to enhance their productivity, competitiveness and innovation results. Lethbridge College placed 29th in Research Infosource’s 2021 ranking of Canada’s top 50 research colleges.

About Southern Irrigation

Southern Irrigation has provided 37 years of water solutions for industry-leading growers, businesses and municipal water systems, with locations throughout British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. With certified experts in irrigation system design, installation and ongoing maintenance, Southern Irrigation is a one-stop shop to provide clients with all the components needed for a variety of water systems. Southern Irrigation was named Business of the Year in 2020 by the Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce.