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Benefits of Irrigation Scheduling

By Mark O’ Connor, AAg, Irrigation Agrologist, Outlook

July 2021

Irrigation on blooming canola field
Irrigation on blooming canola field

Irrigation scheduling or irrigation water management ensures that water is applied according to crop requirements and is consistently available to the plant. Proper scheduling results in maximizing crop yields and quality while decreasing water lost through deep percolation and runoff. Additionally, pumping costs are optimized and water use efficiency is improved.

There are four key pieces of information needed to irrigation schedule effectively:

  1. Soil texture and moisture content - texture influences moisture holding capacity and infiltration rates.
  2. Crop stage and health - moisture requirements are stage dependent i.e. wheat utilizes approximately two mm per day at tillering and up to seven mm per day at heading and flowering.
  3. Climate - daily moisture use will vary considerably depending on factors such as temperature, wind speed and net radiation.
  4. Irrigation system - most quarter section irrigation systems are designed to apply seven or eight mm per day. This rate generally matches peak crop water use of most crops.

There are three types of irrigation scheduling: plant-based, soil-based and crop water use (evapotranspiration) based. Irrigators in Saskatchewan generally use the soil-based method as this allows irrigators to predict water requirements before drought stress can occur. Measuring soil moisture is a key step in this method. Soil moisture can be measured in the field using soil moisture sensors or simply taking a sample and using the hand feel method. Soil moisture can also be estimated by using evapotranspiration models such as the Alberta Irrigation Management Model. Once an irrigator knows the moisture available in the soil and water needs of the crop for the following week they can plan to operate their pivot accordingly.

A number of tools that communicate remotely are available to irrigators. These tools work by sending messages to an irrigators smartphone so they have an up to date picture of field conditions. Irrigators support their infield moisture readings with rainfall data when using either a check-book approach or computer modeling program to predict crop water use. The time saving benefit of these tools will help with more accurate decision making, thus making irrigation systems more efficient and applications more timely while also saving money by reducing the need to check fields as frequently.

More information on irrigation scheduling can be found in the Irrigation Scheduling Manual found on the Irrigation Crop Diversification Corporation (ICDC) website.

ICDC also provides weekly crop water use updates throughout the growing season on their Twitter page. Follow them at @ICDC_SK.

More information and assistance is available by contacting an irrigation agrologist at 306-867-5500.

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