HOW DO SOIL CHARACTERISTICS AFFECT IRRIGATION?
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When planning your crops’ irrigation or fertigation, besides knowing its water needs and your field’s climate condition, it is essential to know your soil, because characteristics that might seem insignificant, will in fact be deal breakers for an efficient water and/or nutrient supply.
The granulometric distribution of the soil’s mineral fractions regarding their size is called soil texture. They can be largely divided into 3 groups: clay, silt, and sand. The clay fraction is the smallest one, with grains smaller than .002 millimeters; it is also the one with the highest rate of electrical charges. Silt particles vary between .002 and 0.05mm and have almost no electrical charges. Finally, there is the sand fraction, with absolutely no electrical charge, sized between .053 and 2 mm.
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- Water retention capacity
The idea of every irrigation system, considering the environment and the farmer’s budget, is to use the minimum amount of water possible. For that to happen, it is necessary for the soil to have a high capacity to retain water, allowing a longer period without irrigation between rains.
Clay soils manage to retain a great amount of water as its small pores can also turn into aggregates (because of their electrical charges) comprising of micropores, which are perfect structures to store water.
Sandy soils, due to their big pores, act mainly as a space for water conduction; they have a low capacity for water retention, therefore need more frequent irrigation.
Soil aeration is the process in which the soil exchanges its gases with the atmosphere and vice versa; it is important because it enables root respiration and plant growth.
Sandy soils, given their pore size and particle organization have good aeration, whereas clay soils – with small pores that work well as water storage but not gas exchange – have poor aeration.
This information will help guide the frequency of irrigation; the gap between supplying water cannot be excessively long as it will lead to dehydration, but also cannot be too short, as this will lead to water accumulation in clay soils, followed by saturation of the whole system. This equates to a substantial waste of water, economic loss, misuse of resources, surface runoff and soil erosion.
- Drainage rates
The soil’s ability to carry water and the smoothness of the movement. Drainage rates are also directly related to the two topics discussed above.
Sandy soils have wider pores and consequently a higher drainage rate, wich helps with water and nutrient distribution. However, it can also lead to excessive water loss.
Conversely, clay soils have a very low drainage rate, therefore hold water for a longer period, but its distribution is quite slow. The same applies to nutrient distribution in fertigation systems.
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- Erosion susceptibility
Silty soils are of particular importance here. Sandy particles are too big to be transported through water, and clay particles (although being small) can use their electric charge to form aggregates big enough to ensure they cannot be eroded; however, silt particles are incredibly susceptive to erosion. Silty soils need special attention during irrigation and fertigation because their particles are not big enough, and they are unable to cluster.
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