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Critical Periods for Crop Water Use

By: Joel Peru, PAg, CCA, Irrigation Agrologist

Saskatchewan has experienced less rainfall in 2017 than in the past few years, when precipitation was unusually abundant. The importance of irrigation is very obvious during years like 2017, with some producers struggling to keep up with crop water use. Even though water is not a limiting factor for irrigators, it’s important to know when to water, how much to water and when to stop watering for a particular crop. Crops generally require more water during their reproductive stages and less water during early growth stages. For example, a wheat crop only uses approximately 1 mm a week after it emerges. After another seven weeks, the same crop will use more than 7 mm a day if the temperatures are around 30 C. It is also important to know when to stop watering for the year. Watering after a certain point in a crop’s lifecycle may delay maturity and add to your input costs with no increase in return.  

Managing your irrigation schedule properly can help prevent different forms of water stress on your crop. Over-irrigating during flowering will create moist, humid conditions, which are an ideal environment for diseases to flourish. In order to prevent yield loss from disease, it is best to fill the soil profile before the crop reaches full bloom. Over-irrigating can also cause lodging, especially when mixed with high soil fertility. Under these conditions plants become too heavy and are unable to support themselves. Remember to always keep the soil’s available moisture at a minimum of 60 per cent until the irrigation termination period in order to maximise yields.     

Table 1 is from the Saskatchewan Irrigation Scheduling Manual. This table shows the growth stage for when a crop needs water the most, as well as when it is at the stage in which irrigating will not provide any benefit. 

Table 1: Critical water requirement period and termination period for various crops

Crop

Critical Water Requirement Period

Irrigation Termination Period

Alfalfa

All the time, especially after cutting

Prior to killing frost

Grass

All the time

Prior to killing frost

Hard spring Wheat

Tillering and flowering

Soft dough

Barley

Tillering through flowering

Soft dough

Canola

Late vegetation/spiking through flowering and pod development

Initial seed ripening

Flax

Flowering

Prior to seed ripening

 Grain Corn

Tasseling and grain filling

Dent stage

Grazing Corn

Tasseling and grain filling

Dent stage

Silage Corn

Tasseling and grain filling

Three weeks prior to harvest

Peas

Beginning of flowering

Pod filling

Potatoes

Tuber initiation and tuber bulking

Beginning of vine ripening

Dry beans

Late bud through pod formation

Mid-August

Faba beans

Beginning of flowering

When half the pods are filled

For more information, see the Saskatchewan Irrigation Scheduling Manual or contact an Irrigation Agrologist at 306-867-5500 for a physical copy.  

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