The talk of drought and water restrictions in the State has created a time for serious decisions. What can be done with avocado citrus trees that have been invested with time and money when there are allocations of water? Although this article is addressed to subtropicals specifically, the guidelines are generally applicable to all fruit trees.
Irrigation systems and scheduling
One of the surest, although not necessarily the cheapest, ways of managing with a decreased amount of water is to improve its application and scheduling. Insure that equipment is working properly, that nozzles are not plugged or worn, that pressures in the irrigation blocks are uniform, that leaks are repaired, and that no runoff or deep percolation are occurring. Many Resource Conservation Districts have Mobile Labs that can help make a system evaluation.
In the Ventura area, oranges use about 30 inches of water per year, however , the monthly amount varies with weather. Applying water in the amounts and at times for optimum production can be improved by using tensiometers. A gauge reading near 40 centibars has been recommended for the one foot tensiometer. The three foot tensiometer can be used to determine the amount of moisture stored in the lower horizon and to determine whether the irrigation was effective, whether the irrigation water infiltrated down to that depth.
Whatever reading is used there is no substitute for observation of the trees themselves and the soil.. Use a soil sampler or shovel to verify the depth of water applied. If time clocks are being used, turn them off or at least adjust them frequently enough to accommodate changing weather patterns. Use of CIMIS weather data can aid in correcting schedules to changing weather.
If water applications need to be curtailed, there will be a decline in yield and fruit size. Applying something less than about 75% of tree requirement will give reduced yields not only for this year, but will lead to dieback and low yields for 3 -4 years after. Abandoning the trees altogether will also yield little or no crop and dieback, but the trees will often return to normal yields in 3 - 5 years. If little water is available, it may be best for commercial operators to reduce the number of trees irrigated to those that can receive 85% of their water requirement and abandon the rest, hoping for more water in future years.
Since it is the leaves that are the site of water loss , the best way to reduce water loss is to reduce the amount of leaves present. This is the ideal time to thin an orchard, get rid of those trees that are shading each other and reducing the per tree yield of fruit. This is a good time to topwork trees to better varieties, since the smaller trees will use less water. A good weed management program will reduce competition for water, and mulching the wetted area of the sprinkler will reduce evaporative loss from the soil surface. Once the leaf area is reduced, it is necessary to adjust the irrigations to reflect the decreased need for water.
This is an opportunity to identify the least productive trees in an orchard and cut of water to them. Trees with root rot or frost damage; trees growing on limy/iron chlorosis sites. Trees growing on ridges that receive the full force of the wind and have a lower yield per gallon of water should be considered first. Trees growing on the perimeter of an orchard also will transpire more water for a given amount of fruit. If all trees in the orchard look good, then these perimeter trees should be targets for saving water. If production records have been kept for different blocks of trees, it might be possible to identify low yielding areas that could be sacrificed.
This is an opportunity , as well. Many growers have kept poor producing parts of groves going because it is an emotional issue to cut up a tree. Seize the day and take advantage of the situation.
For more, check out the powerpoint
Some ways to deal with drought
I've been getting calls and have gone out to see several avocado orchards in the Ventura/Santa Barbara area and the comments are that the trees look worse this year than they normally do. When I see the trees, it's clear that they don't look in the best shape. This time of year, when there are old leaves that have accumulated salt all through the irrigation period and the trees are getting ready to flower, the leaves just don't have much energy. Also, two years of drought with no rain, means that salts have probably accumulated more by this time of year, than in a year when we do have “normal” rain to leach the soil. The accumulated salts can lead to water stress which also brings on stem and leaf blight, along with salt burn. With the bicarbonates in the water, the pH may have rise as well, inducing some iron chlorosis. Compounding the leaf damage is some frost burn, which was not cold enough to kill the leaves. Any dead tissue, also makes the leaves look more ratty, because with Santa Ana winds earlier, those dead areas have often blown out, making them look like they have been nibbled on by insects. Further adding to the stress was a huge crop year that put a lot of stress on the tress. When clearing the leaves to look at roots, it has often been hard to find viable roots. All these stresses are going to make the trees more susceptible to root rot. So it's going to be necessary for growers to keep their eyes out for further disease symptoms and to be ready to treat with phosphites when the soil warms up enough for the roots to start growing again.
- Author: Gary Bender
- Author: David Shaw
OK! Let's Strategize. There are four steps for everybody to consider, it doesn't matter if you have a backyard lawn and landscape or if you have 700 acres of avocados.
1. Maintenance: Irrigation System and Cultural Practices
2. Improve Irrigation Scheduling
3. Deficit Irrigation
4. Reduce Irrigated Area
a. Irrigation System.
- Fix leaks. Unfortunately, there are almost always leaks for all kinds of reasons. Pickers step on sprinklers, squirrels eat through polytube, branches drop on valves, coyote puppies like to chew….the system should be checked during every irrigation
- Drain the lines. At the beginning of each year every lateral line should be opened in order to drain the fine silt that builds up.
- Maintain or increase the uniformity of irrigation so that each tree or each area gets about the same amount of water. Common problems include different sized sprinklers on the same line or pressure differences in the lines. Where there are elevation changes, every line should have a pressure regulator, they come pre-set to 30 psi. Having all of your lines set up with pressure regulators is the only way you can get an even distribution of water to all of the trees, and it solves the problem of too much pressure at the bottom of the grove and not enough at the top.
- Clean the filters often. You don't have a filter because you think that the district water has already been filtered? Hah! What happens if there is a break in the line in the street and the line fills with dirt during the repairs? All of your sprinklers will soon be filled with dirt.
- Is water flow being reduced at the end of the lateral line? It could be because scaffold roots are growing old enough to pinch off the buried line. The only cure is to replace the line.
b. Cultural Management.
- Control the weeds because weeds can use a lot of water.
- Mulch? Mulching is good for increasing biological activity in the soil and reducing stress on the trees, but the mulch will not save a lot of water if you are irrigating often….the large evaporative surface in mulches causes a lot of water to evaporate if the mulch surface is kept wet through frequent irrigation. Mulches are more helpful in reducing water use if the trees are young and a lot of soil is exposed to direct sunlight.
2. Improve the Irrigation Scheduling.
- CIMIS will calculate the amount of water to apply in your grove based on last week’s water evapotranspiration (ET). You can get to CIMIS by using several methods; for avocado growers the best method is to use the irrigation calculator on the www.avocado.org website. If you need further instruction on this, you can call our office and ask for the Avocado Irrigation Calculator Step by Step paper. You need to know the application rater of your mini-sprinklers and the distribution uniformity of your grove’s irrigation system.
- CIMIS tells you how much water to apply, but you need tensiometers, soil probes or shovels to tell you when to water.
- “Smart Controllers” have been used successfully in landscape and we have used one very successfully in an avocado irrigation trial The one we used allowed us to enter the crop coefficient for avocado into the device, and daily ET information would come in via a cell phone connection. When the required ET (multiplied automatically by the crop coefficient) reached the critical level, the irrigation system would come on, and then shut down when the required amount had been applied. Increased precision can be obtained by fine tuning these devices with the irrigation system precipitation (application) rate.
3. Deficit Irrigation.
- Deficit irrigation is the practice of applying less water than the ET of the crop or plant materials. Deficit irrigation is useful for conserving water in woody landscape ornamentals and drought tolerant plants where crop yield is not an issue. Water conserved in these areas may be re-allocated to other areas on the farm or landscape.
- There hasn’t been enough research on deficit irrigation of avocado for us to comment. We suspect, however, that deficit irrigation will simply lead to dropped fruit and reduced yield.
- Stumping the avocado tree could be considered a form of deficit irrigation. In this case, the tree should be stumped in the spring, painted with white water-based paint to reflect heat, and the sprinkler can be capped for at least 2 months. As the tree starts to re-grow, some water should be added back, probably about 10-20% of the normal water use of a mature tree.
- Regulated Deficit Irrigation for Citrus is an important method for saving water, and in some cases will reduce puff and crease of the peel. In one orange trial done by Dr. David Goldhammer in the San Joaquin Valley, an application of 25% of ETc from mid-May to Mid July saved about 25% of applied water for the year and reduced crease by 67%, without appreciably reducing yield.
- 3. Reduce Irrigated Area.
- Taking trees out of production. Trees that are chronically diseased and do not produce fruit (or the fruit is poor quality) should be taken out of production during this period. Also consider: trees in frosty areas, trees in wind-blown areas, trees near eucalyptus and other large trees that steal the water from the fruit trees.
- Changing crops. You may want to take out those Valencias during this period and replant to something that brings in more money, like seedless, easy-peeling mandarins. The young trees will be using a lot less water.
- Fallow Opportunities. You may decide to do some soil preparation, tillage or cultivation, or even soil solarization of non-irrigated areas.
We have found that this four step process is a logical way to achieve water cutbacks with least impact. It is possible to achieve a ten percent reduction in water by only improving irrigation system uniformity and scheduling procedures. Often, these two measures also result in better crop performance and reduced runoff. Reducing irrigated area or taking areas out of production should be a last resort and a well thought out decision. Plan for the future, hopefully water will be more available in future years.
- Author: Blake Sanden
The best key to unlock efficient irrigation practice is to know exactly how much water your crop uses and replace it in a timely fashion that matches your irrigation system capacity and avoids crop stress and water logging. We have good “normal year” estimates of citrus water use (evapotranspiration, ET) for the San Joaquin Valley, but as any grower knows very few blocks are “normal”. The Frost Nucellar on the Cajon loamy sand and fanjets in Edison doesn't behave the same as Fukumoto navel planted to double-line drip on an Exeter clay loam.
So what's the trick for hitting optimum water management for a particular block? You have to keep account of your soil moisture reservoir in the crop root zone. Tracking soil moisture tells you whether you're putting on too much or too little water to meet crop needs. It's also the key to increasing fruit set and quality in many crops such as canning tomatoes, improving flavor in most wine grape varieties and possibly help control puff and crease in citrus.
But any farmer and most ag consultants will tell you that checking soil moisture is not for the faint of heart because it requires auguring holes, pushing a steel probe tube, and/or installing soil moisture monitoring instruments to depths of 2 to 6 feet depending on the crop. Checking instruments or hand probing needs to be done on at least a weekly basis to be useful.
After pushing, twisting, pounding and digging thousands of holes in hundreds of fields around the San Joaquin Valley I can testify to the fact that this is only slightly more fun than shoveling manure, and it's a whole lot harder on your shoulders and wrists. The result is that it's not done very often, if at all, and farmers tend to stick to a traditional irrigation schedule. Given all the other decisions and details growers have to see to on a daily basis it's not surprising this activity gets pushed to the side. At the same time, the years of experience a farmer has with a crop and with a particular field often give him an intuitive sense of how to run the water and end up being 75 to 90% efficient anyway! So if you're already this efficient then why auger holes and check moisture anyway?
There are two reasons: 1) You're not really sure that you're at the optimum point of the crop water use curve until you check, and 2) The simple math of cost versus benefit. Water monitoring consulting services run around $15/acre/season depending on total acreage and what degree of technology and reporting you want done. If this is the only cost you incur to get the extra 5% out of a 3-bale cotton crop then you've made an extra $22/acre even if cotton is only 50 cents/lb. Even at just $2 net/box, the total from an extra 15 boxes of grapes or extra fancy oranges is a 100% return on your $15 investment.
Many growers have tried tensiometers in the past and usually get fed up with the maintenance. A new generation of medium and high technology sensors is now available to growers and consultants. The huge diversity of sensors can be intimidating at first glance but these systems can make this job easier, more accurate and even more affordable. The biggest advantage to the new technology is the use of a continuously recording data logger coupled to responsive soil moisture sensors.
A series of irrigation management/monitoring demonstrations by UC Cooperative Extension over the last 3 years in Kern County has looked at using a combination of 6 granular matrix electrical resistance blocks (Watermark®) coupled to a logger with a graphic display (Hansen AM400®) to allow growers a “push button” look at 5 weeks of soil moisture history at any time during the season. The cost of this system is about $600 and should be good for 3 to 5 years. This gives growers a look at the dynamic changes in soil moisture due to actual crop water use and subsequent recharge of the profile during irrigation. The pattern of the peaks and rate of change of these readings is more useful than the actual numbers themselves. Many different sensors and loggers provide this type of information but the AM400/Watermark system is the only combination providing a graphic display in the field without having to download to a computer. Computer downloads can also be done anytime during the season to develop charts such as those shown below.
Charts (a), (b) and (c) show the changes in soil moisture for 2 different blocks of early navels in the Edison area of Kern County for summer 2003. Comments are placed in boxes connected to explain what these patterns mean.
Even though all three of these monitoring locations are within 800 feet of each other we see very different changes in soil moisture. The hedgerow block (a) has many skips as the grower has begun pulling trees and he wants to avoid over watering the whole block.NEW PARA Charts (b) and (c) are for trees in the same row but different sets. Slightly higher hose pressures and loamier ground keep (b) moister than (c), which shows almost a perfectly efficient pattern of crop water use and recharge. To keep the trees in (c) from looking “hot” required an irrigation frequency for this block that resulted in the wetter condition at location (b). But the bottom line for the grower is these trees have never looked better, he used less water in 2003 and had a better packout than in 2002.
Checkout my website,for some calibration curves and other field examples, both good and bad, under “Using Watermarks in Different Soils”. Irrometer, Onset and Spectrum companies also make inexpensive loggers (can be found here. (Note: use of any product names is not intended as a commercial endorsement.)