When it comes to innovation in irrigation, new technologies and their implementation automatically come to mind. However, in the irrigation industry great potential for innovation also lies in changing how we think about irrigation and finding new practices – changing the way we use both existing and new technologies to grow more with less.
Speaking of innovation in terms of both technology and practices, it is imperative to consider the interaction between these two levels of innovation. Innovative thinking leads to new practices that require new technology. Consequently, innovative irrigation technology is born. Conversely, when new technology is developed it creates space for innovative thinking and new practices. In other words, innovation breeds innovation. Let us consider a few innovative irrigation concepts.
Drip as a delivery system
Much research and development have gone into precision irrigation solutions, such as drip irrigation, used for targeted delivery of fertilisers and crop protection. This is not only due to the ongoing drive for higher efficiency in agriculture, but also the fact that increased precision with the application of fertilisers and crop protection will reduce the chance of unintentional collateral damage during and after the application of these inputs.
Fertigation – the practice of delivering fertiliser through drip irrigation – has been around for decades. It allows optimal root zone management by delivering the right combination of nutrients directly to each plant’s root zone. Producers who implement fertigation are well aware of the immense agronomic, economic, operational, and environmental benefits of applying nutrients to the plant root zone in small doses.
Depending on the legislation in the particular country and the registered suitable methods of use of the products in question, drip irrigation can also be used to apply crop protection. The conventional application method for crop protection products offers no control over drifting of spray materials to areas adjacent to the agricultural areas under treatment.
Many crop protection companies have developed unique products that can be applied through drip systems to provide plants the protection they need while eliminating drifting and reducing application rates.
Benefits of using drip irrigation as a delivery system for crop protection products include:
- Easier and safer operations.
- Lower operational costs.
- Potential for real-time reaction to the occurrence of crop diseases and pests. Treatment can be applied immediately through the drip delivery system.
- Easy access to every plant at any time and any crop development stage.
- Lower impact on the environment and human health.
Taking a collaborative approach
The developing story of drip irrigation reminds us of the importance of collaboration in innovation. In addition, it reminds us that innovation can be a slow, lengthy process. An innovation practice such as this allows the agricultural industry to adapt to overcome the diverse challenges it faces and to find a balance for a sustainable future.
For the past 15 years Netafim has invested in testing drip irrigation systems to deliver crop protection using different substances on various crops. In 2016 the crop protection company Bayer and Netafim put their heads together to introduce the drip-by-drip approach designed to evenly distribute water and crop protection products throughout fields via a drip irrigation system.
The concept of drip protection – the delivery of crop protection products through drip irrigation – has received increased attention and has made great strides in some countries and industries. In 2019 Bayer, Netafim and BGN Technology (Ben-Gurion University’s technology company) collaborated to develop best practices for using drip irrigation as a delivery system for the Bayer nematicide Velum Prime in Israel. This collaboration has led to a clear guide on the use of this product in combination with drip irrigation systems.
Click here to read more about the concept of drip as delivery system.
Centralised low-flow drip fertigation
Seeing as our understanding of plants’ water requirements and ability to measure aspects such as soil and plant moisture have improved, our understanding of irrigation scheduling has also evolved. This has led to innovation in irrigation system and pumphouse design, irrigation scheduling, as well as many other aspects of irrigation. Innovative technology makes several innovative practices possible. The fact that we have access to drippers that offer lower flow rates, for example, has made it possible to completely change the way we irrigate.
Centralised low-flow drip fertigation, also known as continuous irrigation, is an outcome of low-flow drip technology. Much work has been done to test the viability of this concept on certain crops. Commercial results on tree crops showed that it solves many of the challenges faced in managing drip irrigation, and the concept has found increasing application in especially the South African citrus and macadamia industries.
Continuous irrigation uses low-delivery drippers to irrigate at a very low level over a longer period. The irrigation system’s application rate is balanced with the maximum daily water use over the crop’s total consumptive period by decreasing the application rate. The biggest change is moving from several irrigation shifts to one irrigation shift.
Two of the most important advantages of continuous irrigation include improved hydraulic accuracy and uniformity. Furthermore, the irrigation system is no longer repeatedly emptied and refilled to accommodate several irrigation shifts, which significantly increases the system’s efficiency.
The greatest advantage of continuous irrigation remains the fact that we can better control the depth of wetting and reduce instances of under- and over-irrigation. This improves water use efficiency and soil aeration. Continuous irrigation requires a change in pumphouse and mainline design. When it comes to continuous irrigation, blocks are no longer alternately irrigated in shorter shifts. Instead, they are continuously and often simultaneously irrigated, which means that the system requires dedicated mainlines to each block and a central pumphouse.
It is important that we change our way of thinking about irrigation design to adapt to the possibilities of low-flow technology.
Click here to read the full discussion of this concept.
Variable-rate drip irrigation
Another innovative concept in drip irrigation aims to optimise precision irrigation. Spatial variation in soil properties and water requirements across vineyards or orchards under uniform irrigation results in variation in crop yield and quality. Variable-rate drip irrigation aims to combat this.
This concept divides a production unit into irrigation pixels of 30 by 30m to allow tailored irrigation. Each pixel or irrigation zone is classified based on the normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI) satellite maps and independently irrigated accordingly. The basis of the concept is to apply more water to plants with lower vigour and less water to plants with higher vigour – each part of the vineyard is therefore irrigated according to its need through a compensated irrigation strategy, which results in high water application efficiency.
Results from the first trials on Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in California that tested this concept showed that yield, leaf area index (LAI), canopy size, water potential, and primary juice chemical analysis results were uniform across the plot in comparison to previous years.
Click here to read the latest research relevant to this concept.
The idea of community irrigation arose from the simple underlying principle of bringing an entire agricultural community together, along with the government and the private sector, to establish systematic and sustainable irrigation practices.
The concept relies on economies-of-scale to develop the necessary infrastructure at a large scale, while providing small-scale farmers an advanced precision irrigation system. It is a holistic approach to sustainably manage all the natural resources and provide small stakeholders with the necessary infrastructure for sustainable farming practices.
The collaboration between government and the private sector further ensures that these rural communities’ quality of life is improved, they are encouraged to adopt advanced technology, and institutional policies are implemented for sustainable usage of natural resources.
The ideology of community irrigation stands on three primary pillars:
- Shared advanced and innovative technology.
- Bulk supply of water from the source to the field.
- Producer success initiatives such as training centres, on-site agronomic and technical support, easy access to the local markets and more.
Community irrigation is not only beneficial for individual stakeholders, but it is also immensely advantageous for the entire world, which relies on water and adequate agricultural produce.
Netafim’s community drip irrigation project in Ramthal, India, is the largest of its kind in Asia. It has opened the gates to other successful community irrigation projects in the region. The project has implemented a network of pressurised pipelines from a sole source for delivering drip-irrigated water to the designated area.
A new system of distribution pipelines was built to transfer water from the reservoirs and canals in the most efficient way possible. Furthermore, a filtration system was introduced to make sure that the water quality was of a high standard. A Fertigation™ system introduces dissolved fertiliser with the irrigation water. This has led to local farmers being able to produce a greater yield at a lower cost. Besides offering smooth, sustainable farming activities, this project has also paved the way for social peace by ensuring equal distribution of water to all the producers, and gradually bringing prosperity to the drought-stricken areas.
Netafim’s Tarikere and Singatalur 1 community irrigation projects, also in India, followed the Ramthal project. A third megadeal was announced recently. The new deal includes three large projects in India involving the construction of irrigation systems that follow the community irrigation model.
Pursue innovative efficiency
It is important that the entire irrigation industry, whether at producer, designer and supplier level, does its part to ensure that innovation breeds innovation to take the industry forward. If we do not continue to find new ways to apply water and develop new technology that increases water use efficiencies, producers will not be able to keep up with the demand for food with the limited resources at their disposal.
As Michael Esmeraldo, Netafim’s sales manager of the northern region, aptly puts it: “Modern farming is about using the latest technology and farming more efficiently.” A modern approach is about making more efficient use of resources. Producers must use water, fertiliser and other inputs efficiently to maximise the benefit per unit of input.
Irrigation innovation has come a long way and we have incredible irrigation technology and concepts to show for it. Let us never stop innovating in our pursuit of higher efficiency. – Marike Brits, Netafim South Africa