Environment Fact Sheets
Irrigation methods and conservation practices on Canadian farms, 2014

by Environment, Energy and Transportation Statistics Division

Release date: July 8, 2016 Correction date: (if required)

Irrigation methods

The three main types of irrigation used by Canadian agricultural operations include sprinkler irrigation, micro-irrigation, and surface irrigation.  The irrigation method used depends on several factors, including the type of crop, the type and quality of water supply, and soil and climatic conditions, which can vary considerably from one part of the country to the other.

In 2014, as in 2012, farm operations most often used sprinkler irrigation methods to irrigate their crops (76% of farms that irrigated in 2014), with the majority of these farms being in the West.  Farms in British Columbia and in Alberta accounted for 80% of all the farms reporting this type of irrigation.

Water sources and availability

Farms can obtain water for irrigation from a number of sources, including on-farm surface or groundwater and off-farm water. Of the farms that irrigated in 2014, 19% obtained their irrigation water from on-farm groundwater; 38% from on-farm surface water; and 49% from off-farm sources (can be surface or groundwater).

Water availability was not a significant problem in 2014 as it was a fairly wet year, particularly in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario.  In 2014, 79% of farms reported that no issues prevented irrigation for any period of time, ranging from 62% of farms in Manitoba to 84% of farms in Quebec.

Some issues that can prevent irrigation include a shortage of surface or groundwater, poor water quality, and irrigation bans. Nationally, four percent of farms reported that they were unable to irrigate for a period of time due to a shortage of surface water, and one percent of farms due to a shortage of groundwater.

Crop types

Farms that grew field crops, such as canola and soybeans, were most likely to use sprinkler irrigation, with 93% of these irrigating farms reporting the use of this method. Sprinkler irrigation was also the most common method of irrigation used by farms that grew forage crops, such as hay and alfalfa; 90% of these farms used this irrigation method (Table 1).

The most common irrigation method reported for fruit operations was micro-irrigation, with 65% of the irrigating fruit growers using this type of system.  Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia showed the largest proportions of micro-irrigation use with 52%, 43% and 41% of irrigating farms reporting this method, respectively.  Irrigation for fruit trees, common in these provinces, is also used as protection against frost and heat.

The majority of farmers irrigating vegetable crops reported using sprinkler irrigation over other methods (73%).

Conservation methods

Farmers using irrigation employ a range of water conservation practices, particularly when water availability or cost is a factor.  Nationally, the most popular conservation methods used by irrigators were watering at night or in the morning (57%), using water or energy saving nozzles on their irrigation equipment (56%), incorporating compost or organic matter into the soil (56%), and pressure reduction (52%) (Chart 1).Note 1

The most popular conservation practices differed by province. Farms located in the Atlantic region (78%), Quebec (84%), Ontario (86 %), and British Columbia (62%) were all most likely to conserve water by watering at night or in the morning (i.e. to avoid watering at mid-day when more water would be lost through evaporation). Irrigating farms in Manitoba and Alberta were most likely to use water or energy saving nozzles (81 % and 75%, respectively). Saskatchewan farm operators were most likely to conserve water by leaving stubble on the fields, a practice employed by 68% of all irrigating farms in the province.

Table 1
Percentage of irrigating farms by crop type and irrigation method, 2014Note 1Note 2
Table summary
This table displays the results of Percentage of irrigating farms by crop type and irrigation method Field crops, Fruit crops, Vegetable crops and Forage crops, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  Field crops Fruit crops Vegetable crops Forage crops
Sprinkler irrigation 93 45 73 90
Micro-irrigation 5Note E: Use with caution 65 39 Note F: too unreliable to be published
Surface irrigation 6 6 7Note E: Use with caution 16

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Irrigation Methods

Sprinkler irrigation systems distribute water above the crop canopy using a spray. Sprinkler irrigation systems include: hand move; solid or permanent set; side roll, wheel line, wheel move or wheel roll; traveller, volume gun, travelling gun, walker, overhead or circular; linear move; and centre pivot.

Micro-irrigation delivers water onto the soil surface very close to the crop or below the soil. Micro-irrigation systems include: surface drip; sub-surface drip; micro-sprinklers; bubblers; micro jets; and hand watering.

Surface irrigation water flows over the soil surface by gravity, either by flooding or in furrows. Surface irrigation systems include:  down rows; furrows; corrugations; border dyke; level basins; uncontrolled flooding and back flooding; and exclude surface drip irrigation.

Source: Statistics Canada, Environment, Energy and Transportation Statistics Division, Agricultural Water Survey.

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Chart 1 Conservation methods used by Canadian irrigators, by province or region, 2014

Data table for Chart 1
Data table for Chart 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 1. The information is grouped by Conservation method (appearing as row headers), Percentage (appearing as column headers).
Conservation method Percentage
Other methods or devices 17
Incorporating compost or other organic matter into soil 56
Water or energy saving nozzles 56
Pressure reduction 52
Watering at night or in the morning 57
Leaving stubble on fields 45
Wind breaks 20

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Irrigation application efficiency

Irrigation application efficiency generally means how well water is getting to the roots of a crop. There are various factors that impact application efficiency such as slope, climatic conditions, and crop type. Poor management and/or design of equipment can also pose problems.

  • Slope has an impact on the degree of infiltration or runoff but, if managed properly, runoff can be re-captured for re-use on fields.
  • The amount of precipitation over a growing season or a soil moisture abundance or deficit will also affect how much water will infiltrate.
Table 2
Potential application efficiencies for well-designed and well-managed irrigation systems
Table summary
This table displays the results of Potential application efficiencies for well-designed and well-managed irrigation systems. The information is grouped by Irrigation system (appearing as row headers), Potential application efficiency , calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Irrigation system Potential application efficiency
Sprinkler irrigation  
Low energy, precision 80 to 90
Linear move 75 to 85
Centre pivot 75 to 85
Surface irrigation  
Furrow (conventional) 45 to 65
Furrow (surge) 55 to 75
Furrow (with tailwater reuse) 60 to 80
Microspray 85 to 90
Subsurface drip > 95
Surface drip 85 to 95

Irrigation Water Management Study Committee, 2002, South Saskatchewan River Basin: Irrigation in the 21st Century. Volume 1: Summary Report, Alberta Irrigation Projects Association, Lethbridge (Alberta).

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About the Agricultural Water Survey

The Agricultural Water Survey is conducted every two years to gather information on irrigation water use, irrigation methods and practices, and sources and quality of water used for agricultural purposes on Canadian farms. The results will help farm operators, governments and the Canadian public gain a better understanding of the demand for water and how it is used on Canadian farms.

Other findings of the 2014 Agriculture Water Survey.

This survey is part of the Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators (CESI) program. The data collected is used in CESI's reporting activities. The information is used by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to inform water use policy and development of programs for Canadian irrigators. Statistics Canada also uses the survey results to continue to report on total water use by sector in Canada.

Available in CANSIM: tables 153-0134 to 153-0144.

Definitions, data sources and methods: survey number 5145.

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact us (toll-free 1-800-263-1136; 514-283-8300; STATCAN.infostats-infostats.STATCAN@canada.ca) or Media Relations (613-951-4636; STATCAN.mediahotline-ligneinfomedias.STATCAN@canada.ca).

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