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Effectively Integrating Drip Irrigation & Fertigation into Growing Operations

Posted May 2nd, 2017 by Robin Nichols in

With record droughts and water considered to be the next most endangered resource, more efficient methods of irrigation are evolving and finding their way into greenhouses and fields across the globe. Drip irrigation has been around for a surprisingly long time in agricultural history. It started with perforated clay pots and pipes buried underground in China, during the first century BCE. The development of plastic drip tape systems in the mid-twentieth century became one of the most inventive and useful technologies in agriculture since the sprinklers of the 1930’s.

As agriculture adapts to changes in the land, the cost of production and the availability of resources, implementing innovative systems on farms can become a huge relief. It is argued that drip irrigation produces greater, healthier yields and can save growers valuable time. The benefits and ease of use make a drip system a worthwhile consideration if you have not thought of introducing one before.

Fertigation: Fertilizing with Drip Irrigation

Fertilizer is often over-applied or insufficiently distributed in conventional methods of fertilizing. But fertilizing more precisely can trigger optimal conditions for plants during different life phases. Fertigation is a method of fertilizing that achieves a more precise application. Fertigation is quite simply, adding water-soluble fertilizer to an irrigation system in order to apply exact amounts directly to the root system. While fertigation can be implemented in less effective methods of irrigation, like a sprinkler system, a fertigation system using drip tape is much more efficient.

Increased Efficiency

Drip irrigation provides a direct source of hydration to the root zone. The root system of the plant is therefore able to absorb higher amounts of nutrients. This method is used to keep a strict application regiment and to correct any nutrient deficiencies that can be analyzed through plant tissue. Another benefit of drip tape fertigation is that sometimes fertilizers can contaminate the soil, increasing the risk of soil borne disease. Directing fertilizers and amendments to the root system minimizes the levels of contamination in soil. Drip tape irrigation reduces the contact between water and leaves, stems and fruit, minimizing the development of diseases. Furthermore, because drip tape is directed towards the crop’s roots and eliminates flooding, weed control is a lot easier.

Many growers using a soil medium and drip tape will bury it slightly below the ground and call it subsurface drip irrigation (SDI). SDI should help protect drip tape from sun exposure and damage done by cultivation or weeding. In dry climates, SDI helps to reduce water evaporation and waste by creating an even more direct path to the root system. SDI is more effective than laying drip tape on top of the soil, especially in arid climates. This type of precision modification is a great way to increase efficiency in a drip irrigation system.

Efficiency is a major reason to use drip irrigation systems. Both water application and fertilizer application is much more precise than in traditional overhead watering. Precision creates a more unified and productive crop that performs exceptionally well. On the contrary, traditional watering, like overhead watering or flooding, methods of farming in general are failing in the area of sustainability.

Adaptability

Traditionally, agriculture in America has operated under the assumption that there is a need for flat plots of land for growing, but drip irrigation changes the game. Drip systems are able to adapt to misshapen or uneven fields and soil textures. By replacing overhead sprinklers and flooding techniques with drip tape irrigation, farmers can adapt to using imperfect topography. It is, however, important to measure and get a good reading on how much pressure a system loses as water travels over its distance. Drip tape operates at a lower pressure than traditional sprinklers saving in pumping costs, but without a good understanding of the work a system has to do to reach crops, watering can end up being applied unevenly.

Uneven application can lead to over using fertilizers and amendments. An effective drip tape irrigation system can save on costs of inputs, but also maximize their availability. With countrywide droughts and the most productive agricultural areas bearing the worst of it, water conservation is a huge upside to using drip irrigation. Drip tape systems can use up to 60 to 70 percent less water than traditional irrigation systems and drastically reduce common environmental problems with other irrigation systems, like erosion and leaching.

Drip tape can be set up very simply by building a connected system of plastic pipes that attach to drip lines on one end, and the spigot or water source on the other. A drip system can easily be set up in a single morning. If growers want to automate their irrigation system, adding a computer controller to the system is also a simple step.

Automation

Drip irrigation is really one of the first moves towards automation and precision farming, which are wholly concerned with minimizing both labor costs and resource inputs, like water and fertilizers. Automated and precision farming are preemptive responses to a declining labor force and the reality that if this trend continues, automated technology will have to replace the laborer in order to maintain production.

There are many reasons why one should implement automated drip tape irrigation into a growing operation. The idea behind drip irrigation and fertigation is that a grower using drip irrigation is giving the plant what they need, when they need it and not over applying. With automated systems, sensors pick up on moisture levels of plants, soil or atmosphere and switch on and off according to the input goals set. Automated systems virtually eliminate the need to monitor plant nutrition, so it is a tool that provides a level of efficiency unknown before the technology of today.

Drip & Fertigation Pointers

Now that we’ve explained the benefits and requirements for an efficient drip system, here is an overview of what to consider for the most effective and efficient drip system.

Water Quality

Probably the most important question when setting up any irrigation system is what is the quality of your water source? Making sure your water is safe is incredibly vital if you are growing consumable crops. Test the water with your local water quality company. For the sake of the drip system, you also want clean water to avoid clogging, which can occur within the drip lines or emitters. Keep an eye on your filter and clean it out often to avoid losing pressure.

Pressure

Understand which areas of your system, if any, are losing pressure on the drip tape journey. Aim for consistency throughout the field or greenhouse, so that your recipe for success is matching up to your conditions.

Automation

If any grower is looking to lower labor costs and energy, automation of any kind, if affordable, is a huge leg up.

Maintenance

Even with automation, a grower has to oversee their operation to make sure each part is running correctly.

Leaks

Monitor the pressure and look out for leaks. Leaks in a drip system can be easily and quickly repaired with plastic connectors that will cover the leak and connect the split piece, without forcing growers to throw out or replace the leaky tape.

Efficiency

As this is the goal and reason drip tape exists, over-spending on a super advanced drip system may not be most efficient for many growers. Take the suggestion of starting with a simple drip system on smaller acreage, and then expand towards the goal of automation once you have an understanding of your operational needs.

Creating a healthy and steady water supply for plants is vital, especially with the droughts of recent years. Farmers depend upon the success of their production. A drip irrigation system is an excellent addition to a growing operation and will save any farmer hours of manual watering and gallons of wasted overhead water. For those ready to step into the 21st century with automation, environmental controllers can automate everything from ventilation to drip and fertigation systems in a greenhouse. Drip system components are easy to find and just as easy to repair.

Adapt to your operational needs and custom build a drip tape system. With technology that has persisted for thousands of years, drip irrigation is an ingenious solution to a growing concern for water waste and efficiency.

Amanda Williams is a content writer for GrowSpan, which specializes in greenhouses and growing solutions. She is an experienced grower and owner of Town Farm in Ledyard, Connecticut.

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