Irrigation need spurs efficiency warning to potato growers

Potato growers told to master water scheduling to overcome climate variation and protect yield.

This year's dry spring may be a taste of the future, potato growers have been warned, because they will contend with much greater climate variability and uncertainty.

This was the message from Cranfield University principal research fellow in irrigation and water resources Dr Jerry Knox to delegates at the Potato Council's East of England Potato Day. The event was held last month in Suffolk at host farm Frederick Hiam Day.

This year started with a very dry spring, which was later made up for by rainfall over the summer, he noted. As a result, a number of growers who would not normally have to irrigate had to do so to maintain tuber quality. Many also irrigated wheat, which was very unusual.

Knox explained that because irrigating was likely to become more common, potato growers needed to master the art of assessing the right amount of water at the right time in the right place.

"Inefficient irrigation can result in a loss of income in addition to increased production costs," he pointed out.

"Tailoring your water scheduling to your potato variety and to take into account local soil and climate conditions is key to building a sustainable, profitable business."

He added that improved water efficiency may not necessarily mean using less water. But it should ensure maximum crop uptake and better yields and quality.

Knox stressed the importance of digging into the ridge to observe the depth of water penetration and adjusting the irrigation accordingly. "Growers with cultivations over a wide area may have to contend with a variety of infiltration properties. Appreciating these differences when devising an irrigation schedule is crucial," he said.

Knox also told growers that using the right operating pressures was vital for efficient irrigation. "Low pressures are the most common problem, causing poor atomisation and larger drops that can then damage soil structure.

"In addition, water uniformity may become more uneven, with some areas saturated while others remain dry. This results in greater differences in tuber size at harvest."

Water-use findings

In a typical dry year, more than half the water consumed in potato production can be from irrigation, whereas in wetter years it can be as low as 16 per cent, according to recent water footprinting research at Cranfield University.

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