Working with producers top priority for irrigation research chair

Willemijn Appels wants to focus on research projects ‘that will really benefit local producers'

Understanding how water moves through soil is one of Willemijn Appels’ 
areas of expertise.
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Calling all Alberta irrigators — Lethbridge College’s new irrigation science chair wants to know about your experiences and challenges with agricultural water management.

In March, Willemijn Appels took up her new posting, which was created with a $3.1-million gift from the estate of Lloyd and Dorothy Mueller two years ago.

“My job over the last six months has been trying to find people who want to collaborate with the college in developing research questions that are relevant, new, and that will really benefit local producers,” said Appels.

Appels’ expertise is in water movement through the soil.

“It’s important that you know how long water stays in the soil. That will influence how long it is available to plants,” Appels said. “Crops can only take water from the upper 50 to 100 centimetres of the soil, so as soon as it’s out of that reach, it’s no longer of any use to them.”

Knowing how different soil properties affect water retention and flow can help understand how water needs to be applied.

She also focuses on how it reaches plants, and how it moves and transports solutes like nutrients, pesticides, and salts.

“If you know that soil properties are clayey or sandy, then what does it mean for how long we can hold on to water that we apply?”

This also applies to how fast nutrients such as fertilizer or manure are flushed out of reach of the plant root.

Over the summer, she set up one small field study, putting soil moisture sensors in three sites, and looked at the differences in water dynamics in the soil in the root zone under various irrigation techniques: A hand-moved system, a pivot, and a subsurface drip system.

Appels also has a strong interest in examining variable-rate irrigation. Applying different amounts of water to different areas of a field based on topography, soil variability, and other factors has been hailed in some quarters as a game-changing technology.

Appels agrees variable rate is promising, but said she feels there’s work to be done in quantifying the benefits and costs.

“The idea is great, but can we actually monitor the crops well enough to apply water in situ, even if we have the technology to do that?” she asked.

In addition to the field work, Appels is trained as a computer modeller. In the off season, she works at creating models that simulate how water moves in the fields. This aids in understanding the flow and water uptake, and models allow her to study events you wouldn’t want to subject a field to.

“If we want to examine what the effect would be of 100 millimetres of rain in two hours, it’s best done with modelling, rather than an actual field,” she said. “I’m trying to see what the effects of really wet events, really dry events, and irrigation management are on crops.”

But Appels also has a bigger target — helping the next generation of farmers achieve a higher level of agronomy to optimize production on irrigated land. And the key to that is making current and emerging technology more accessible to producers, she said.

“What farmers are doing now works — the sector as a whole is doing great,” she said. “But I think there are quite a lot of options there to take that a step further.”

Producers with ideas for research projects or who are willing to be collaborators in studies, can contact Appels at [email protected]

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