Water needs and Irrigation of Cacao

cacao irrigation
Cacao tree

Benjamin Akane

Agriculturist specialized in the Ghanaian Cocoa system

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The high average annual rainfall ranges from 78 – 216 cm (31 – 85 inches) in Ghana, unevenly distributed in most years. Coupled with the high evapotranspiration and loss by surface runoff, this means that moisture deficits, especially in topsoil, occur quite often. Drip irrigation with pressure-regulating emitters was preferred because of its efficiency in applying water in small quantities near the consumption requirement of the crop directly onto the rooting zone.

In view of the apparent sensitivity of cocoa to drought, there have been surprisingly few irrigation experiments, but perhaps less surprising given the limited likelihood of commercial-scale irrigation. Murray (1961) reported the results of one such experiment in Trinidad. However, problems in applying and monitoring the amount of water applied in the dry season mean that the results obtained over five years (no consistent yield advantage from irrigation) had little value. Low atmospheric humidity in the dry season was suggested as a possible limiting factor. An irrigation experiment in Ghana was also compromised by poor design (recognized as a weakness), which meant the data could not be analyzed statistically. Yield increases of 12, 17, and 40% were obtained from mature Amelonado trees by keeping the soil close to field capacity in 1960–1962. These increases were less than anticipated at the time due; it was again thought, to ‘dry air’ constraints. No absolute yields were presented (Hutcheon et al., 1973). In Côte d’Ivoire, Jadin and Jacquemart (1978) compared two methods of irrigation (sprinklers and drip) with an unirrigated control treatment on the development and yield of young cocoa over a two-year period. Sprinkler irrigation was applied when the measured soil water deficit reached 20 mm (0.78 in), whilst drip irrigation was applied when the soil water tension reached 20 kPa at 0.20 m (7.8 in) depth. As a result in part of these differences in scheduling irrigation, considerably more water was applied with the sprinklers in the dry season (535 mm or 21 in) than with drip (224 mm or 8.8 in).

Irrigation, particularly drip, speeded up the rate of development, increased the number of flowers, and increased yields but did not affect the periodicity of the growth cycle. The results of an unreplicated field scale irrigation trial in Peninsular Malaysia were later reported by Huan et al. (1986). Supplementary irrigation (drip) was applied daily to a 0.5 ha (1.2 acres) block of mixed hybrid seedlings on a coastal estate (marine clay) after water requirements of cocoa 669 dry periods (no rain for two weeks), except on days after there had been 5 mm (0.2 in) or more rain, or it was actually raining. A similar 0.5 ha (1.2 acres) block acted as the unirrigated control. The trial lasted nearly three years (1981–1983). Annual dry bean yields were increased by irrigation from 1500 to 2400 kg per ha (1338 to 2141 lb/acre) (+60%) in 1982 and from 1150 to 1450 kg per ha (1026 to 1294 lb/acre) (+28%) in 1983. This followed an increase in pod number (averaging +39%) and in bean weight (+7%). The quantities of water applied were not specified. These results can only be considered indicative of responses to irrigation at this site and have limited generic value. In the simulated El Niño drought experiment reported by Moser et al. (2010) in Indonesia (described above under Roots and Crop water requirements), there were no significant differences in cocoa leaf, stem and branch wood, or fine root biomass production (above and below ground) between the control treatment and the one in which rain through-fall was reduced by 70–80%, even though the soil profile dried to a permanent wilting point during the year.

By contrast, there was a reduction in dry bean production over the year as a whole from 740 ± 180 to 670 ± 30 kg per ha (660 ± 161 to 600 ± 27 lb/acre) (both low yields when compared with the best commercial yields), with the later harvests more affected than the early ones. Possible causes of the limited response to drought in terms of net biomass production were proposed. These included active osmotic adjustment in the roots (measured), high atmospheric humidity in both treatments, and drought mitigation through shading by Gliricidia. In contrast to the trials described above, the principal practical objective of an experiment summarized by Hutcheon (1981b) was to find out if irrigation would induce Amelonado trees to flower throughout the dry season in order to produce pollen for use in manual pollination of a seed orchard in Ghana. When the cherelles were continuously removed, irrigated trees produced 30% more flowers than unirrigated, although the flowering patterns were the same.

There was no benefit from using over-tree sprinklers (to reduce internal water stress by raising the humidity) rather than micro-sprinklers under the trees. Drought mitigation repeated mulching (with fresh, moist plantain pseudostems) improved the establishment of cocoa seedlings during the extended six-month dry season in Ecuador (Orchard & Saltos, 1988). Specific advice to growers on irrigation practices is even harder to find, but the Central Plantation Crops Research Institute, Kerala, South India, gives this (edited) 670 M . K . V. CARR AND G. LOCKWOOD advice to cocoa producers in some areas of southern India, where long periods of dry weather lasting three to six months can occur (CPCRI, 2010): ‘Irrigate at weekly intervals during the summer [presumably refers to a sole crop]. When cocoa is grown as a mixed crop with areca nut, irrigate once a week during November-December, once every six days during January-March, and once in four to five days during April-May with 175 l water tree− 1. Maximum yields are obtained when cocoa is drip irrigated with 20 litres per day per tree. For examples, assuming a planting density of 1600 trees per ha (640 trees/acre) (2.5 m × 2.5 m or 8.2 x 8.2 ft), these figures equate to rates of water use equivalent to 5.6–7.0 mm (or 0.22-0.27 in) per day for drip irrigation. No estimates of the yield benefits are given or of the total quantity of water to be applied over a season. Presumably, this is not known. Irrigation is a luxury for many farmers. It is ‘the icing on the cake, only to be considered when other limiting factors have been addressed. Given cocoa’s international importance as a traded commodity, and whatever the situation, it isn’t easy to understand why cocoa production at a field level is so under-resourced.

Further reading

Cacao production: Challenges and Management Strategies
Cacao Variety Selection and Propagation
Cacao Soil requirements and Planting distances
Water needs and Irrigation of Cacao
Cacao Fertilization and Nutrient Requirements
Cacao Plant Protection – Major Stresses, Disease and Pest of Cacao
Cacao tree Pruning
Yield, Harvest, Handling and Storage of Cacao
Sales, Trading, and Shipping Cocoa Beans


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( Dohmen, et al. 2018)  Temperature changes, drought, and prolonged dry season affect the flavor and overall quality of the product

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