Precision Agriculture Improves Watershed Health

Written in partnership with the Taber Irrigation District

Agriculture is a huge component of our economy, contributing some $3.6 billion to Alberta’s gross domestic product. To anyone who lives in southern Alberta, it should come as no surprise to discover that the area has the largest irrigation system in Canada. According to the Alberta Irrigation Districts Association, thirteen irrigation districts supply water to more than 1.4 million acres of farmland in Southern Alberta through a combination of canals, pipelines, and storage reservoirs. Irrigation district infrastructure provides water security for rural municipalities, industry, wetlands, and water-based recreation, particularly those located in areas with low annual precipitation and without reliable natural sources of water.

Over the past 20 years, farmers and irrigation districts have made big water efficiency gains.  These advances have been achieved primarily through farmer adoption of modern, low-pressure sprinklers and irrigation district conversion of open canals to pipelines. With both solutions, water loss through runoff, seepage, and evaporation is greatly reduced. Because irrigated agriculture accounts for approximately 85% of water allocated in the South Saskatchewan River Basin, these improvements are welcome, necessary, and have a positive impact on our water system.

VRI Pivot. Photo supplied by the Taber Irrigation District.

VRI Pivot. Photo supplied by the Taber Irrigation District.

The next big development, ‘precision agriculture’, is one of the most significant agricultural advancements in recent history. Precision agriculture uses specialized technology to increase the efficiency and accuracy of crop management. Gains are achieved by recognizing the variability within, and between, fields, and applying the right input (e.g. fertilizer, pesticide, water or manure) at the right rate, time, and place. 

A recently released study by the University of Lethbridge (U of L) examines the adoption of precision agriculture technologies in irrigation farming in Southern Alberta. It is the first of its kind. Authored by Drs. Lorraine and Christopher Nicol, and sponsored by the Alberta Real Estate Foundation, the study helps fill a knowledge gap regarding agriculture advancements in Southern Alberta by examining the use of agriculture technologies by the Taber Irrigation District (TID).

Of the participants surveyed in the U of L study, it was found that 81% had adopted some kind of precision agriculture technology. There was an average of five precision technologies in use per survey participant. Crop yields and quality increased 20% and 16% respectively, while also significantly reducing inputs for water (24%), fertilizer (21%), herbicides (14%), and pesticides (19%). Some limitations noted by the 19% of non-adopters included high investment costs, incompatibility with existing equipment, and unsuitable application in smaller operations. The TID board noted that the continuing trend of including parcels of land from smaller operations into the rotations of larger ones will increase the adoption rate of precision agricultural technologies. A staggering 92% of respondents indicated that they wanted to adopt more precision technology in the future. Approximately half of respondents indicated that management of environmental impact was a major reason for adoption – great news for the watershed!

Irrigation pipeline installation. Photo supplied by the Taber Irrigation District.

Irrigation pipeline installation. Photo supplied by the Taber Irrigation District.

The Taber Irrigation District (TID) board explains that “the survey was designed to encourage the operator to provide their perspective on the impact of precision agriculture technologies. The detail of this study, the first of its type we’ve participated in, shows which technologies are being adopted, their effects, the motivations for adopting, and the demographics of adopters.” 

The technologies referenced range from basic tools including auto-steer technology and weather monitoring, to more advanced concepts like soil mapping and data management. According to TID, “the adoption of precision agriculture technologies is enhancing the economics of irrigation farming through increased crop quality and greater yields, decreased inputs, and ultimately results in an improved bottom line.”

While precision agriculture yields significant economic benefits and streamlined work processes, it also reduces the impact of agriculture on the environment. TID explains that “farmers have a strong desire to maintain the land and communities they live in through good environmental stewardship and the study results confirm this. The evidence shows that environmental impacts are declining through the use of precision agriculture.” 

Canal membrane liner. Photo supplied by the Taber Irrigation District.

Canal membrane liner. Photo supplied by the Taber Irrigation District.

TID District Manager, Christopher Gallagher, shares the benefits of using precision techniques. He notes that they extend beyond the farm to both the surrounding environment and communities: “The results help the Taber Irrigation District to show both our water users and the public that we are on side with their concern about environmental impacts as we are both impacted by, and have impacts on, our shared watershed.” He added that “precision agriculture application methods such as variable rate irrigation, soil moisture monitoring and field mapping for soil texture help reduce the volume of water applied to fields while meeting plant needs.”

The resources conserved through these methods improves water security and aquatic environmental health by leaving more water in our rivers. Irrigators aim to use a portion of the water saved for expansion of the irrigated land base—effectively using the same quantity of water over a larger piece of land. Another portion will be set aside to help irrigation districts manage the risk of water shortages in dry years.

“We are counting on improved land management using precision agriculture technologies to lead the treatment train at the upstream end,” Gallagher explains. “It is encouraging to find, that although irrigators are motivated to reduce inputs for economic reasons, they are also concerned about environmental impact.”

TID, as well as many other irrigation districts, strive to provide water users with the best quality of water. However, maintaining water quality is not only up to the districts; Gallagher concludes “We are all downstream and fellow irrigators, as well as downstream communities (residential and aquatic), will benefit from improved water quality.” 

Farmer pump station.  Photo supplied by the Taber Irrigation District.

Farmer pump station. Photo supplied by the Taber Irrigation District.

Learn more about irrigation and crop rotation in our “The Science of Spuds” video:

There are some modern and progressive technologies being used and developed all over the world. This video provides a nice summary and look at precision agriculture technologies that could potentially be used in the future.