Jan 26, 2022
Soil Texture and Plant-Available Water
In Arizona agriculture, we have the benefit of generally working with good soils that exist in alluvial valleys or the terraces immediately adjacent to the alluvial valleys, e.g. the mesa areas. Arizona soils are geologically young and fertile but often have high levels of salinity and often sodicity. When reclaimed and properly managed with adequate leaching, we can reduce the salinity to manageable levels to support crop production systems. In the case of sodic conditions, appropriate amendments are needed then followed by adequate leaching.
In the process of applying an irrigation in the field, it is important to recognize that not all soils are created equal. Soil types vary across the landscape and they also vary by depth for any site or location. This is particularly true for alluvial soils which originate from water deposition over time, such as from the Gila and/or Colorado River systems. The soils of the lower Colorado River valleys are great examples of alluvial soils and the high degree of variability we commonly experience in the field. With some crops, particularly more deeply rooted crops, we can sometimes nearly map the soil types across a field based on crop growth patterns. Accordingly, this type of soil variability creates some challenges for in-field management, including irrigation management.
Many of the rotation crops common to the lower Colorado River Valleys, such as cotton, wheat, and sudan; are excellent examples of crops that can express growth patterns as a function of soil texture, which is clearly demonstrated in response to water stress. The courser textured parts of the field will stress earlier and consistently have reduced plant vigor. Anyone driving a tractor for medium to heavy tillage operations in the field will literally feel soil textural changes and anyone harvesting those fields will see it as well. The GPS field mapping systems can detect and record these areas of soil type differences through yield monitors as well in response to crop growth and vigor.
Soil textures vary in terms of water holding capacities and it is important to understand the dominant soil textures in the field, not only on the surface but also through the depths of the soil profile and the effective rooting depth of the crop, Tables 1 & 2 and Figure 1. To manage a complete field or set of fields, it is necessary to determine a functional “average” of soil texture and water holding capacity.
In the process of irrigation, we are attempting to replenish the soil-water extracted by the crop through evapotranspiration (ETc). In previous articles, the determination or estimation of crop ETc has been discussed.
Therefore, with irrigation management it is important to know the fields we are working with in terms of the dominant soil textures present, the degree of variability that exists, and the general water-holding capacity of the soils. Matching irrigation timing and volumes for each event to replenish the plant-available water for each field is important in our efforts to avoid water stress and achieve and maintain irrigation efficiency agronomically, which is providing the amount of water necessary to replenish the soil-water to field capacity with some degree of additional water needed for the leaching of soluble salts.
With the high degree of variability that is common among soils in the lower Colorado River Valleys, it is both important and challenging to know the soil characteristics common in each field, the water holding capacity of the dominant soils, and the level of soil-water depletion that is being replenished with each irrigation event.
Table 1. Soil texture and water holding capacity.
Table 2. Depths to which the roots of mature crops will deplete the available water supply when grown in a deep permeable, well-drained soil under average conditions. Source: Chapter 11, "Sprinkler Irrigation," Section 15, Natural Resources Conservation Service National Engineering Handbook
Figure 1. Soil volume, soil texture, and water holding capacity relationships.
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