Posts Tagged: Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center
Scientific evidence of a warming climate in California and across the globe is clear, but the impacts on ecosystems and agriculture are still difficult to predict.
Sophisticated computer models are used to forecast future climate. Understanding that temperature and precipitation levels will change in the future does not tell the full story: UC Agriculture and Natural Resources researchers also want real-world experience under those future conditions.
Moreover, some agricultural operations have higher sensitivity to the changes than others. Rangeland forage is particularly sensitive to climate changes since, unlike irrigated agriculture, ranchers rely solely on precipitation. They have no control over how much and when it rains.
“It's tricky business,” said rangeland expert Jeremy James, the director of the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley. “It's not easy to forecast. We have to address the uncertainty in a realistic manner.”
Discovering climate change impact on rangeland
In order to study different climate projections on rangeland, James and Maggi Kelly, director of the UC ANR Informatics and Global Information Systems special program, have begun development of a research site that will allow scientists to manipulate the temperature and rainfall on sections of rangeland to understand what would happen under predicted weather scenarios.
“We need to know how rangelands will respond when conditions change,” James said. “Will we grow more, but dry out earlier? Will we have more medusahead (an undesirable rangeland weed) or more soft chess (a high quality forage)?”
When complete, 16 shelters on steel tracks will be connected to computer systems and hydraulic motors to move them up or down a research plot. The shelters and other equipment will allow scientists to precisely control the amount of precipitation (or irrigation water) that rains onto the plot. Other systems will give researchers control of air temperature.
“This facility isn't designed for one type of research,” James said. “It is designed to conduct a wide variety of research by scientists over the next several decades. With this setup, we can look at the effect of climate change on soil biological communities, soil carbon, insect communities, plant-insect interactions and oak seedling recruitment.”
The research results from the project should provide ranchers and land managers a better understanding of how climate change may impact agriculture and ecosystem function on rangeland while also providing important information on how to minimize impacts of these changes.
Some aspects of the research facility's development are not covered with funding from the National Science Foundation. The scientists are looking for additional support to complete the project.
For more information, contact James at email@example.com.
Current work underway at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center
The Sierra Foothill REC, a 5,000-acre facility on the Yuba River, has supported research, education and outreach in the Sierra foothills since 1960. Multiple lines of research are being conducted at SFREC. During a recent workshop, scientists from UC Davis, UC Berkeley and UC Cooperative Extension shared a sampling of their work at SFREC.
UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor Dan Macon described a project aimed at helping ranchers make decisions about maintaining a cattle herd when faced with impending drought. Ranchers are reluctant to sell off their cattle even when the near future weather forecast is dire.
“Science tells us you shouldn't feed your way out of a drought,” Macon said. “But you want everything to stay the same. You want to maintain your genetic potential and keep cows that are familiar with the area.”
Working with ranchers, the research project will compare management practices to determine the best way forward when the future looks meteorologically bleak.
“We're assigning cows to a traditional weaning and early weaning groups,” Macon said. “They'll be out on the range from March to early September under different parameters. We're also tying in economics, the value of genetic potential and the value of having cows who know the landscape.”
Research by University of Oregon post doctorate researcher Ashley Shaw is looking into whether compost applied to rangeland will help mitigate climate change by sequestering more carbon, and also benefit forage under drought by increasing the soil's water-holding capacity and improving nutrient delivery.
Preliminary results are promising. A single application of 1/4-inch of compost resulted in forage production that was higher than areas where no amendment was applied and areas that were treated with a chemical fertilizer.
“The biggest impact was under drought shelters,” said Shaw, referring to PVC frames that were covered with plastic during rain events to understand the impact of the treatment under dry conditions. “In the drought plots, the areas where compost was applied are staying green longer.”
A defining research tool at SFREC is a dataset that includes information on monthly rainfall and forage production going back 40 years.
A review of the data shows surprising variations and correlations at the center, where forage production averages 3,000 pounds per acre, but ranges from about 1,000 pounds per acre in 1987, to over 5,000 pounds per acre in 2018, when there was so much growth, “we didn't have enough animals to graze,” James said.
The dataset paints a spectrum of the variation that ranchers across the state must navigate to manage their livestock and rangeland in a way that is profitable and ecologically sound. Research at the Sierra Foothill REC offers invaluable information to help them better understand the ecosystem and make informed decisions.
The rare bird species makes its home in marshes created in large part by leaky pipes, stock ponds, irrigation tailwater and unlined canals. Even the springs that support some habitat may rely on water flowing from leaky canals. In 1994, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources scientists found the small, red-eyed bird with the black breast and speckled black feathers at UC ANR's Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center. Since its discovery, a group of scientists have been exploring the effects of water management and climate change on the bird in Sutter, Butte and Yuba counties.
California black rails, which can be heard more often than seen, largely depend on humans and irrigated agriculture to provide the shallow flowing water they use for habitat.
Lynn Huntsinger, professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, wondered if property owners would be willing to maintain wetlands to support wildlife.
Property owners responding to the survey said the primary reason for maintaining ponds and wetlands is to reduce wildfire risk, but they also like the birds and wildlife that are attracted by wet areas. However, Huntsinger worries that the “accidental wetlands” may dry up as the drought increases the pressure on people to conserve water by fixing leaks and replacing canals built during the 19th century Gold Rush with pipes.
Most of the farmers and ranchers buy water from a water district so Huntsinger sees working with water districts as a key to the sustainability of wetlands for wildlife.
More and more, she says, it seems that we are facing tradeoffs between “goods”— saving water is good and preserving wildlife habitat is good. “We need flexibility and adaptation rather than all or nothing choices. After all, we are creating the future landscape of California,” Huntsinger said.
Huntsinger's study is just one facet of a California black rail study that involves scientists with different kinds of expertise.
Steve Beissinger, professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, has been studying black rail behavior for years and continues to monitor how many sites in the Sierra foothills the small birds use as habitat.
Marm Kilpatrick, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz, studies how concern about mosquito-borne West Nile virus may affect landowners' decisions to maintain wetlands.
“It is a novel ecosystem, offering habitat engineered by people and their livestock that happens to offer the black rail what it needs,” Huntsinger said. “We just don't know enough about conservation in this kind of situation. Managing traditional landscapes is common in Europe, but rare in the United States.”
For more information about the California black rail, see the California Agriculture article “California black rails depend on irrigation-fed wetlands in the Sierra Nevada foothills.”
Below, UC Berkeley graduate student Nathan Van Schmidt describes research at UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center on how the rails cope with drought, seasonal hydrology regimes, and the rescue effect.
An initiative to maintain and enhance sustainable natural ecosystems is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.