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UC ANR to work with farmers to apply artificial intelligence technologies in the field

UC Agriculture and Natural Resources will receive $865,000 to help farmers in the Colorado River basin and the Salinas Valley integrate digital tools and artificial intelligence into their growing systems. The funds are part of a $10 million Sustainable Agricultural Systems grant from the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture to improve the sustainability of the nation's food supply.

The intensive agricultural industry of the Colorado River basin – which includes the Palo Verde, Coachella and Imperial valleys in California; the Yuma Valley and other areas, such as Wellton-Mohawk Valley in Arizona – produces vegetables in the winter that are shipped across the country. Salinas Valley farms produce vegetables in the summer for markets throughout the nation.

“Vegetables are an essential part of a healthful diet. With this grant, NIFA is recognizing the role that California, Arizona and Colorado play in growing nutritious food for Americans,” said Khaled Bali, UC Cooperative Extension irrigation specialist. “The sustainability of these production systems into the future, particularly in light of challenges like climate change, increased drought and limited access to surface and groundwater, will require sophisticated technology.”

U.S. agriculture industry professionals are world leaders in the use of technology, including automation, drip irrigation, sensors and drones. “What's new is how you can now integrate technology into making decisions,” said Bali, who is leading the digital agriculture education and outreach aspect of the grant.

UC Cooperative Extension specialist Khaled Bali (center) says field days will be part of the outreach effort to increase the use of artificial intelligence in agriculture.

Bali said new farming tools work like smart thermostats in homes, which have sensors throughout the house and learn family patterns to make conditions perfectly comfortable throughout the day and night.

On the farm, instead of applying the same amount of water and fertilizer over hundreds of acres, sensors, valves and digital management allow small sectors to get treatments based on soil type, size of plants, pest pressure, salinity and disease management.

“This project will lay the foundation for a long-term shift to highly automated mechanized farm management systems – with full implementation likely decades in the future,” Bali said. “The precise application of inputs in agriculture will save water, reduce the percolation of fertilizer below plant roots, reduce the need for manual labor in the industry, increase yields and decrease expenditures, enhancing the industry's economic viability.”

Field demonstrations, training sessions, videos and handouts will bridge the gap between ongoing farming practices and academic and industry state-of-the-art digital technology. These activities are expected to increase the productivity and competitiveness of major crop growers.

The new project will expand the usage of a smartphone and website app called CropManage, a system developed in 2011 by Michael Cahn, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties. CropManage allows farmers in the Salinas Valley to input information about their crops and soil, and then automatically receive recommendations about irrigation and fertilization needs that take into account weather conditions reported by the California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS), a network of automated weather stations managed by the California Department of Water Resources.

More than 2,000 Salinas Valley users have signed up to use CropManage.

Currently, CropManage makes about 2,000 recommendations to Salinas Valley farmers each month during the growing season. The new funding will allow for the expansion of CropManage to help farmers manage salinity.

“To minimize salt toxicity to the crop, farmers may need to apply water to leach salinity below the root zone. But we don't want to leach nitrates,” Cahn said. “We want to decouple these processes and do the leaching when there are lower nitrogen levels in the system. Determining timing and water amount is something we will build into CropManage.”

The grant will also provide funding for new training and outreach that will enable more farmers to use the CropManage app.

The overarching $10 million grant awarded to UC Riverside is led by professor Elia Scudiero, an expert in soil, plant and water relationships. He and a team of UC Riverside scientists will develop artificial intelligence data needed for smart farming systems with new statistical and algebraic models that find repeated and generalizable patterns.

Another key piece of the effort will be supplying the agriculture industry with the next generation of growers, managers and scientists. Funds from the NIFA grant will establish a Digital Agriculture Fellowship program to recruit more than 50 data, environmental or agricultural science students over the next five years to develop and learn the technology. Internships with key commercial partners are also a feature of the program.

Intensive farms in California provide vegetables to the nation in the summer and winter. (Photo: Pixabay.com)
Posted on Wednesday, June 24, 2020 at 10:53 AM
Tags: Khaled Bali (11), Michael Cahn (6), vegetables (22)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

El Niño isn't filling Monterey County lakes as quickly as other state reservoirs

Rain has been falling, but Monterey County reservoirs aren't filling quickly. (Photo: CC BY 3.0)
Despite frequent rain since the New Year, the water levels in two Monterey County lakes aren't rebounding at the same rate as drought-stricken lakes in other parts of California, reported Ramin Skibba in the Monterey Herald.

In December, Lake Nacimiento was at 16 to 17 percent of capacity. It has now risen to 22 percent. Lake San Antonio, which dropped to 3 percent of capacity last summer, is still at 3 percent now. It is so low that engineers refer to it as a "dead pool" because gravity cannot pull water out of the reservoir when it is at that level.

The Monterey County lakes don't fill as quickly as other lakes - such as Shasta, Folsom and Oroville - because they are fed by relatively small watersheds. Nacimiento and San Antonio were built in the 1950s and '60s for flood control and to recharge aquifers. With dropping aquifer water levels, farmers have had problems with their wells, the story said.

“Some growers' wells pull in as much air as water, so that they need repairs or lose the wells entirely. I've seen well drillers around, which indicates re-drilling,” said Michael Cahn, a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension advisor in Monterey County. “This is a cost for agriculture.”

As they drill deeper, farmers also risk more seawater flooding in, contaminating the limited water supply. It was seawater intrusion that originally led to the construction of the Nacimiento and San Antonio dams. 

Cahn was quoted at the end of the story with a positive message. 

“The aquifers are currently at the lowest levels ever recorded, but they can go back up,” he said.

Posted on Wednesday, January 27, 2016 at 4:30 PM
Tags: aquifer (2), drought (163), El Niño (4), Michael Cahn (6)

UC app helps growers monitor water and fertilizer use

Farmers can access CropManage from the field with a smart phone or tablet computer.
A UC Agriculture and Natural Resources scientist will hold a workshop in April to teach farmers how to use an online application available free from UC ANR that calculates the precise water and fertilizer needs of their crops, reported the Salinas Californian.

CropManage compiles information about the crops' soil, growth and water needs from years of UC ANR Cooperative Extension Research, said Michael Cahn, UC ANR Cooperative Extension irrigation and water resources advisor in Monterey County.

"It's repackaging research into a format that's accessible to everybody," said Cahn, who developed the program."It takes 10 steps to do the calculations by hand and (CropManage) does it in a second."

Using CropManage helps farmers avoid wasting expensive fertilizer, reduces the likelihood fertilizer will leach into the groundwater, and makes efficient use of water, a factor that is increasingly important as the state struggles through what may be the fourth consecutive year of drought.

CropManage can currently be used for head and romaine lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and strawberries. It will expand to other crops in the future.

"We want to develop things carefully," Cahn said. "We're not trying to make money on this, we're just trying to help the growers."

The workshop will be from 8:30 a.m. to noon Thursday, April 2, at the Monterey County Agricultural Center Conference Room, 1432 Abbot St., Salinas. RSVP by email to Michael Cahn at mdcahn@ucanr.edu.

Posted on Wednesday, March 11, 2015 at 10:38 AM
Tags: CropManage (2), Michael Cahn (6)

Online tool helps farmers make decisions that save water

CropManage can be accessed from an iPad in the field.
Central Coast farmers can cut back irrigation water by 50 percent over the course of the lettuce or broccoli growing season and still harvest the same yield using an online decision tool developed by UC Cooperative Extension.

Michael Cahn, UCCE advisor in Monterey County, developed CropManage and is now conducting field trials comparing crop water use and nitrogen use under standard growing practices and the recommendations made by the web-based tool. So far, research results are in for lettuce and broccoli, showing dramatic reductions in both water and fertilizer use when the computer aids decisionmaking. Current crops supported by CropManage are romaine and iceberg lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. Additional crops will be added in the near future.

Cahn described and demonstrated the computer program in a 25-minute video that is part of the UC California Institute for Water Resources online video series. The series consists of presentations featuring UC and other experts speaking on topics aimed at helping farmers and all Californians better understand and cope with drought.

Very efficient use of water minimizes the amount of water that will leach below the crop's rootzone, where it can't be used by the plant and can contaminate the water table. Factors that must be considered in achieving such efficiency include the rooting depth of the crop, the plant's stage of growth, the amount of water stored in the soil, the irrigation system uniformity, the water application rate, the salinity in the water source and the weather.

“That requires a lot of calculations in developing irrigation scheduling,” Cahn said.

CropManage gathers much of the information and does the calculating for farmers. CropManage automatically pulls up weather data from weather stations operated by the California Department of Water Resources, soil data from the UC Davis Soil Web, and research data from UC Cooperative Extension. The farmer adds information about the crop, field, and type of irrigation system being used.

“The computer program takes this information and running it through models can make water and fertilizer recommendations,” Cahn said.

The system also stores all the data for farmers, allowing growers to track their practices and demonstrate they are managing nutrients and water efficiently.

View the 25-minute below:

Posted on Thursday, June 12, 2014 at 8:24 AM
Tags: CropManage (2), drought (163), Michael Cahn (6)

UC Cooperative Extension advisors help spinach growers finesse fertilizer applications

Spinach takes up 80 percent of its nitrogen needs in the final two weeks before harvest.
UC Cooperative Extension advisors are studying the critical balance between fertilizer application and absorption in Salinas Valley spinach crops to help farmers meet new water regulations, reported Dennis Taylor in the Salinas Californian.

Richard Smith and Michael Cahn, UCCE advisors for Monterey and other Central Coast counties, have been conducting field trials for several years to determine volume data on fertilizer application. Once growers know exactly how much nitrogen their crop is absorbing, they can more precisely apply an appropriate amount.

Smith explained that baby spinach will absorb roughly 80 percent of the nitrogen it is going to take up in the final two weeks before harvest, making timing critical, Taylor reported. Spinach harvested a few days later, called "teen spinach" uses about 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre; larger-leafed spinach can used up to 120 pounds.

“No (previous) studies had evaluated high-density planting of clipped or bunched spinach grown on 80-inch beds,” said UCCE research assistant Aaron Heinrich. “Our study was specifically designed to provide data on the nitrogen uptake characteristics of spinach and to evaluate ways to improve nitrogen fertilizer management.”

Posted on Thursday, December 5, 2013 at 10:32 AM
Tags: Michael Cahn (6), Richard Smith (8), spinach (4)

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