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Posts Tagged: conservation agriculture

UCCE webinar intends to help farmers raise the value of California cotton

Well-known appellations, powerful marketing and excellent products make California wines very valuable. Could the same be done for California's cotton crop?

California farmers produce high-quality cotton, but currently take in only 62 cents per pound, a price that makes turning a profit challenging. UC Cooperative Extension is working with a team of soil health and fiber sustainability experts to offer an online workshop from 9 a.m. to 12 noon Sept. 17 that will explore ways to increase cotton's value. Speakers will share new soil-building practices and ideas for marketing the crop's sustainable production system to make California cotton more valuable to consumers.

“Buyers and markets are paying attention to sustainability, climate change mitigation and protecting natural resources,” said UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist Jeff Mitchell. “We want to seize the moment for cotton.”

The webinar will start with discussions led by Rebecca Burgess of Fibershed and Cala Rose Ostrander of the People, Land, and Life Foundation about what clothing and textile brands are interested in and what they may be willing to pay in support of healthy soil management systems for California cotton.

Three cotton farmers – Gary Martin of Mendota, John Teixeira of Firebaugh and Cannon Michael of Los Banos – will share their motivations and experiences with cotton soil health management approaches.Cary Crum, a crop consultant with California Ag Solutions, Inc., will discuss striking progress on regenerative ag silage systems with relevance for cotton.

David Lamm, former NRCS National Soil Health Coordinator and now part of the Soil Health Institute in Greensboro, N.C., will share experiences from the Southern U.S. cotton belt to improve soil health.

The program also includes a discussion about long-term soil management research conducted at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points by UC Davis doctoral student Geoff Koch and UC Cooperative Extension specialist Jeff Mitchell.

Registration for the general public is $10; registration is free for farmers. To register, visit http://ucanr.edu/sjvcottonwebinar

Using soil-building techniques in cotton production could raise the value of the crop.

Webinar sponsors are:

UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center, California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil Health Institutes, Fibershed, California Climate Investments, California Department of Food and Agriculture Healthy Soils Program, Rodale Institute California Organic Center.

For more information contact Jeff Mitchell at jpmitchell@ucdavis.edu, (559) 303-9689.

Posted on Tuesday, August 18, 2020 at 8:08 AM
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

UC ANR scientist debates conservation tillage practices with industry leader

Alan Wilcox of Wilcox Agri-Products and UC Cooperative Extension specialist Jeff Mitchell debated the challenges and opportunities for increased implementation of conservation tillage practices on California farms during the World Ag Expo in February, reported Alan Stenum in Farm Equipment magazine.

Wilcox said farmers are going to be resistant to anything they suspect will affect yield. Mitchell said creative innovation underway will have a big impact on some of the more challenging crops that are grown in California.

Alan Wilcox, left, and Jeff Mitchell debate the challenges and opportunities for conservation tillage. (Photo by Farm Equipment magazine, used with permission)

"This is a region where costs are high. The cost of doing business is high, and maximum yields on any crop are important to even break even," Wilcox said. "We're going to be intensely committed to water management and the maximum amount of water."

Mitchell said farmers in other parts of the U.S. started to switch to reduced disturbance no-till systems to conserve water.

"The recognition of the value of that opportunity to reduce soil water evaporation and have more water going through the crops through transpiration hasn't really sunk in here in California in large fashion," Mitchell said.

While Mitchell noted that water is essential to the discussion of conservation agriculture, there are other important aspects to consider.

"Biological cycling of nutrients in the soil, tightening up the system so there are fewer losses, either to the groundwater as some sort of pollution, or improving the overall soil function and nutrition provision capacity of the soil - that's not a small aspect of the overall system, nor are the opportunities for reducing costs," Mitchell said.

Wilcox said he would characterize the argument differently.

"The point is in all of our tillage strategies - and in every situation - we never compromise yield," he said.

Read the complete debate in Farm Equipment magazine.

More information about the use of conservation agriculture practices can be found on the UC Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation website.

Posted on Thursday, June 14, 2018 at 8:46 AM
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

Chowchilla dairy farmer named 2017 Conservation Agriculture Farmer Innovator

Michael McRee of Chowchilla is honored as 2017 CASI Farmer Innovator.
Chowchilla dairy farmer Michael McRee has been named the 2017 Conservation Agriculture Farmer Innovator by the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation (CASI) Center for his innovation and leadership in the development and use of conservation agriculture systems on his farm. 

“Mike McRee has been extremely willing to share his experiences with others and has graciously hosted numerous public field days at his dairy farm over the years,” said Jeffrey Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist and CASI founder.

The dairy producer, who milks about 2,000 cows at his farm west of Chowchilla, double crops his own dairy forage along with tomatoes and alfalfa crops on about 850 acres. After his pioneering efforts with strip-till – some of the very earliest in the entire San Joaquin Valley – McRee soon found that the conservation agriculture practice saved him time and money as he had anticipated, and yielded other important benefits for his farm as well.

McRee noticed improved water-holding capacity of his soil since working with strip-tillage, as well as increased consistency in the soil's ability to absorb water, mellower soil overall, and more consistent crop stands and yields overall.

Improved soil tilth, increased soil organic matter and earthworms give him consistent yields year to year without extreme highs or lows.

McRee's quest to improve the performance of his silage production systems began back in 2007.

He readily admits that he faced challenges early on.

He tried no-till wheat, but was limited in this effort by hard, compacted soils. Having the right equipment is a key to the whole endeavor, McRee points out.

He has worked with local NRCS partners and the EQIP program, which assists growers with implementation of practices to improve our soil, water and air resources. 

Following a great deal of consultation with other growers and experimentation, he developed a very successful strip-tillage system for his silage corps. The change was spurred initially by his interest in reducing the number of times he had to drive a tractor through his fields to save fuel and labor.

He now does fall primary tillage using a Wilcox 7-shank subsoil ripper with a crumbler. Vertical tillage has replaced disc plowing to achieve a smooth seedbed without turning the soil over.

After winter forage is harvested, preparation for corn silage planting begins. McRee explains that he rips the soil down 13 to 14 inches and uses coulters to prepare the seedbed. After pre-irrigation, he uses the Dawn Pluribus strip-till row unit, a tool that preps an eight-inch band of soil for planting. Using GPS, he can run his tractor 6 to 7 mph for this pass.

“With three passes, I can do everything,” McRee said.

“Additionally, McRee has recently installed subsurface drip irrigation that utilizes dairy lagoon water for his silage crops,” said Priscilla Baker, NRCS soil conservationist in Madera. “This project is in partnership with the organization Sustainable Conservation.”

McRee received the award Oct. 13 at the annual meeting of the San Joaquin Valley Resource Conservation Districts held at the Wool Growers' Restaurant in Los Banos. 

In 2005, the University of California, NRCS and the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation (CASI) Center established the Conservation Agriculture Farmer Innovator Award as a means for providing greater visibility to conservation agriculture pioneers in California. The criteria for this award are demonstrated innovation and leadership in the development, refinement and use of conservation agriculture systems within the California crop production environment. 

For more information about conservation agriculture systems, visit http://casi.ucanr.edu.

 

 

Posted on Friday, December 1, 2017 at 12:21 PM

Better soil boosts farm profit and benefits the planet

Healthy soil does much more than hold plants upright on the surface of the earth. It is a mix of mineral bits and old plant particles teeming with microbes to form a mysterious and complex web of life scientists are just beginning to understand.

While scientists use high technology to study heathy soil – painstakingly counting soil worms and bugs, sequencing the DNA of soil bacteria, for example – some farmers know intuitively whether the soil is healthy just by walking on it.

Scott Park is a first-generation Meridian, Calif., farmer. “When I step on a field and it feels like a road, something is wrong,” he said. “If it feels like a marshmallow or sponge, that's good.”

An overflow crowd at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center learns about the benefits of farming practices that promote healthy soil.

Park shared his farming experiences with 200 farmers, industry representatives, University of California Cooperative Extension scientists, Fresno State students, news media and others during a half-day UC workshop at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points.

“The last 31 years I've been on a mission of building soil,” Park said. “I discovered it by accident and I've made lots of mistakes. But yields trend upwards every year on every crop. Being sensitive to building soil, I'm making a lot of money. And if I'm doing something for the earth, all the better.”

Park said he adds 10 to 15 tons per acre of biomass to his farm every year. He's using less fertilizer, up to 20 percent less water, and even experimenting on the farm by growing a commercial crop with just four inputs: cover crops, water, seed and sun.

“We got high-yielding, good-quality crops,” Park said. “Nobody was more shocked than I am that I got a good crop.”

Soil samples on the left break down quickly in water. On the right, healthy soil absorbs water without breaking down.

Researchers are now using the scientific method to figure out the root causes of these empirical observations.

“There's a lot going on in soil,” said Radomir Schmidt, a UC Davis soil microbiologist who spoke at the soil health field day.

A teaspoon of soil has a billion bacteria and six miles of fungal hyphae, the filaments that branch out through the soil from fungi, Schmidt said. The microbes' interaction with living plant roots, the larger pores left by decomposing vegetation and tunneling worms and insects create a system that confers resilience to unforeseen challenges – such as pest pressure, torrential rainfall and plant diseases.

The field day was held under a tent pitched adjacent to an 18-year research trial at the 320-acre facility. The trial compares four farming systems side by side:

  1. Conventional system, with annual soil tillage and no cover crops.
  2. Conservation agriculture, with no tilling whatsoever and annual winter cover crops.
  3. No-till without the cover crop.
  4. Conventional tilling with a cover crop.

“Take a look over my shoulder to see the difference,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist and the study leader. “We've found the cover crops and no-till reduce water needs, cut dust, and lower costs. And there may be more benefits than we realized.”

For example, a graduate student counted the worms, bugs, beetles and other microfauna in soil samples from each of the treatments. There were double the amount in the no-till, cover crop plots compared to the conventional farming system.

Randall Southard, UC ANR soil researcher, standing in a bulldozed pit, shows the characteristics of soil beneath conservation agriculture trials at the West Side REC.

UC Cooperative Extension specialist Sloan Rice found that cover crops promote water retention in the soil after rainfall. There is very little water evaporation from the soil surface and water transportation from the cover crop plants in the winter, so little water is lost. Cover crops also promote more water infiltration below three feet.

“Cover crops for sustainable water management is particularly important considering the water supply availability and its cost,” Rice said.

Healthy soil management also shows promise in confronting global climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil, rather than depleting it.

Manager of Sano Farms in Firebaugh, Jesse Sanchez, was a speaker at the field day. He wasn't surprised by the overflow crowd.

“Farmers are more and more curious. They see some of us using cover crops, and they want to learn more,” Sanchez said. “There has been a swell of interest. I have a tremendous number of visitors every year.”

Field day participants take a close look at the soil.

For more information about soil building, see the UC Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation website at http://casi.ucanr.edu

Posted on Monday, June 12, 2017 at 2:26 PM

With conservation agriculture, Firebaugh farmers use half the nitrogen and a third less water

How do you cut your water use by a third, cut your nitrogen use in half, maintain your tomato yield and improve your fruit quality?

“With patience, perseverance and by treating your soil like a living ecosystem — which it is,” says Jesse Sanchez.

Jesse Sanchez, manager of Sano Farms in Firebaugh. (Photo: USDA NRCS)

Sanchez should know. He and Alan Sano have been experimenting with soil enhancements for 15 years on Sano Farms in Firebaugh.  They believe they have hit upon a winning strategy — though their experiments continue.

Today, they grow 50-ton-per-acre tomatoes with half of the nitrogen (120 units) and a third less water than before. They also report fewer weeds and better tomato quality.

The soil organic matter (SOM) — the living portion of the soil that turns crop residue into minerals needed by growing plants — has gone from 0.5 percent to 3.0 percent, report Sano and Sanchez.  

“The soil is like day and night,” says Sanchez. “You can dig it with your hands,” he says, cupping a handful to prove his point. 

So how do you transition largely inert soil into the ecological powerhouse found on Sano Farms?

Alan Sano, co-owner of Sano Farms in Firebaugh. (Photo: USDA NRCS)

Cover crops, reduced equipment passes, and subsurface irrigation have been key, according to Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist based at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center. These practices combine to feed and protect the soil microorganisms often ignored in agricultural systems. Mitchell has been coaching the Sano/Sanchez team for over 10 years, witnessing their progress and connecting them with like-minded farmers and organizations.

“Farmers sometimes worry that cover crops will compete with the cash crop for water and nutrients,” says Mitchell.  “We're starting to see at Sano Farms — looking long term — that the tradeoffs might actually be favorable.”

Sanchez says he terminates the cover crop before the tomatoes are planted, leaving the dead residue to smother weeds and feed the soil microorganisms.

The SOM also builds the sponge that allows the farm to thrive on less water, says Zahangir Kabir, soil health specialist with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“A one percent increase in SOM builds your soil's ability to hold water by 19,000 to 25,000 gallons per acre. Calculating conservatively, Sano Farms' fields hold 50,000 gallons of water more per acre than they did before," Kabir said.

You can see this in action at Sano farms. “When it rains here the water soaks into the field. It stays put,” says Sanchez.  “It doesn't run off like some farms.”

Sanchez, who received a White House Champions of Change Award last summer, says he knows farmers resist change.  “But we can't stop change,” he says. “It's all around us.”

And, if they (farmers) do change the way they work with their soil, says Sanchez, “they are going to like what they see. ”

Sanchez will be a featured speaker at the second annual Latino Farmers Conference on Nov. 15 at the Monterey Hyatt Regency. The event is free but registration is required. http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/events/ca/newsroom/events/?eventid=584#584 .

USDA NRCS produced a three-minute video profile of Alan Sano and Jesse Sanchez at Sano Farms in Firebaugh. View it here: 

Posted on Thursday, November 3, 2016 at 6:31 AM
  • Author: Anita Brown, USDA NRCS, anita.brown@usda.gov, (530) 792-5644

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