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Deciding on the Final Irrigation

By: Joel Peru, PAg, Irrigation Agrologist

When growing a crop under intensive irrigation, proper scheduling is necessary to ensure healthy crops and efficient water use. The final step to irrigate on schedule is to know when to turn the water off for the season. Terminating irrigation too early will result in yield reductions, while irrigating too late will add unnecessary costs and waste water. The objective of the final irrigation should be to fill the soil moisture profile sufficiently to allow the crop to reach physiological maturity without incurring moisture stress.

In 2016, Saskatchewan irrigators received above-average rainfall, which has maintained soil moisture over sufficient levels (above 60 per cent moisture by volume). This has prompted producers to stop irrigating early to avoid inducing disease or water stress due to excess moisture. In an average year, irrigation is needed throughout the plants’ reproductive stage to maximise yields. Crops typically have the highest water demand during reproductive periods (flowering, filling).

The time to terminate irrigation is crop specific and determined by crop stage or a killing frost. Table 1 describes the general recommendations for terminating irrigation for various Saskatchewan crops. The amount of water required for the final irrigation will depend on crop type, soil texture, current moisture levels and crop evapotranspiration. Using a computer-based model such as AIMM (Alberta Irrigation Management Model) is helpful to determine the quantity of water to apply toward the end of the growing season. It is important to fill the soil moisture profile at the end of the year for perennial or winter annual crops such as alfalfa and winter wheat. 

Producers may also apply water after the harvest of an annual crop during dry years. This ensures available moisture in the following spring and encourages microbial activities such as nitrogen mineralization. The downside to this management strategy is the increased risk of spring runoff, which results in wasted water and nutrient losses.

 

Table 1.  Irrigation termination periods for crops grown in Saskatchewan

Crop

Irrigation Termination Period

Alfalfa

Prior to killing frost

Grass

Prior to killing frost

Hard spring Wheat

Soft dough

Soft spring Wheat

Late soft dough

Barley

Soft dough

Canola

Initial seed ripening

Flax

Prior to seed ripening

Grain or Grazing corn

Dent stage

Silage Corn

Three weeks prior to harvest

Peas

Pod filling

Potatoes

Beginning of vine ripening

Dry beans

Mid-August

Faba beans

When half the pods are filled

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