Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
University of California
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Posts Tagged: CASI

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

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

Lessons from six California soil care farmers

Firebaugh farm manager Jesse Sanchez speaks at a soil care demonstration.
Despite the growing interest in soil health in many parts of the country, the notion hasn't captured the imagination of most farmers in California. The Golden State's lackluster attention to soil care is likely due to “phenomenal yield increases over the past several decades, the sheer diversity of cropping systems, and widespread perception that California's environment and crop production mix doesn't lend itself to soil health improvements,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension agronomy specialist.

A series of farm visits this summer in the Central Valley prove this rationale wrong, Mitchell said. The farm visits were sponsored by the UC Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center (CASI), USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service and the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts. The farm visits showcased the soil health goals and experiences of six farmers who are familiar with soil care principles across a wide range of local cropping contexts.

The series of visits demonstrated the use of no-till and minimum tillage farming, cover cropping, enhancing the diversity of above-ground species and underground soil biology, surface residue preservation, and compost applications.

John Teixeira is a diversified farmer in Firebaugh working to develop integrated crop and livestock systems that are not reliant on external inputs. Pursuing a diverse rotation that includes alfalfa, cover crops, and a variety of heirloom grain crops that are marketed as both raw seed and value-added pasta, Teixeira is working to enhance soil function and fertility so that all external impacts are eliminated.

Michael Crowell and his son Adam grow silage crops near their Turlock dairy and dryland small grain crops using no tillage along Highway 4 in the rolling hills south of Dixon. They use no-till as a means to reduce soil water evaporation and to increase the water holding capacity of their soil, thereby enabling them to produce economically viable crops on the region's typical 14 inches of winter rainfall.

Darrell Cordova and his son Trevor of Denair also use no-tillage for their summer silage corn and winter small grain forage mixes and as a means for stabilizing the soil, adding surface residues, increasing infiltration and reducing runoff under their center pivot-irrigated crops growing on undulating terrain. These practices also cut costs and eliminate considerable labor.

Tom Willey of Madera uses compost applications ahead of each of his organic vegetable crops to build the nutrient-provision and water-holding capacities of his soils. His sustained dedication to these amendment applications and his farming goal of attempting to mimic natural systems in terms of active, high-functioning soil biology enable him to produce a great diversity of very high quality vegetables.

Alan Sano and Jesse Sanchez in Firebaugh have combined the conservation ag/soil care practices of reduced disturbance and cover crops for more than 10 years in their processing tomato fields. They report lower costs, improved soil tilth, and the ability to reduce nitrogen fertilizer inputs by about half.

“These six soil care farmers share an uncommon dedication to the principles that are at the core of soil health and conservation agriculture systems,” Mitchell said. “Each of them reported tangible value that they are receiving from their attention to caring for the soil and working to improve soil function.”

Mitchell and the network of organizations that are part of CASI now seek a new wave of farmers who are interested in evaluating conservation agriculture, climate-smart practices at their farms.

For information on how to become involved with farm performance monitoring and the educational activities, see the CASI website at http://casi.ucanr.edu/

 

The rapidity of water infiltration into the soil is a measure of soil health.

 

Posted on Thursday, July 21, 2016 at 8:10 AM
Tags: CASI (8), Jeff Mitchell (5)

Researchers see more overhead irrigation in California’s future

A center-pivot system irrigates small grain winter forage and summer silage corn production in Denair. (Photo: Jeff Mitchell)
Overhead irrigation systems have revolutionized agriculture across the United States and in other parts of the world, using less water than furrow irrigation and requiring significantly less labor and maintenance than drip systems. But in California, the No. 1 agriculture state in the nation, it hasn't gotten off the ground.

That is beginning to change.

UC Cooperative Extension and Fresno State agricultural production scientists researched overhead irrigation at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center for five years, growing wheat, corn, cotton, tomato, onion and broccoli and comparing them with crops produced under furrow and drip irrigation. With all of them except tomato, overhead irrigation led to similar or increased yields, according to the scientists' report published in the current issue of California Agriculture journal.

“Overall, we are very encouraged by these results, and they reflect the experiences that many California farmers have recently been having with overhead irrigation systems,” said lead author Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist. “We've confirmed that overhead irrigation systems work in California. We also concluded that there are opportunities to get even better results with more research and experience, particularly when overhead irrigation is coupled with practices that preserve crop residues and rely on reduced tillage.”

The article co-authors are Anil Shrestha, weed scientist at Fresno State; Joy Hollingsworth, UCCE staff research associate; and Dan Munk, Kurt Hembree and Tom Turini, UCCE advisors in Fresno County.

The tomato yields under overhead irrigation were disappointing, particularly since tomatoes have a prominent role in many Central Valley annual crop rotations.

“This isn't a simple process,” Mitchell said. “You can't just turn it on and let it go. It will require focused and dedicated farmer and researcher attention and innovation to solve.”

The authors are working with a team of Central Valley tomato farmers, processors, irrigation experts and research colleagues to improve overhead irrigation management in tomatoes. They are encouraged by the success of Walnut Grove farmer Michael Boparai, who achieved profitable processing tomato yields with overhead irrigation.

Overhead irrigation systems were invented more than 60 years ago. They now irrigate 50 percent of total U.S. farm irrigated acreage. In Nebraska, 87 percent of irrigated land is under overhead systems. By contrast, in California overhead systems irrigate only 150,000 acres, just 2 percent of the state's irrigated farmland.

Mitchell and his co-authors outlined several factors that contributed to its slow rate of adoption in California:

  • Early adopters ran into serious problems, giving the systems an undeserved bad reputation that persists even though in recent years California farmers are using the systems successfully.
  • Center pivot systems typically leave the corners of the field unirrigated, which can reduce production.
  • Purchase and installation cost of the overhead system is substantially higher than furrow irrigation.

However, the UC and Fresno State research has shown many advantages.

  • Overhead irrigation can be managed remotely and automatically.
  • The system can accommodate different terrain and soil types.
  • Overhead systems requires less maintenance than drip systems in terms of avoiding clogging of emitters and repairing leaks.
  • Overhead irrigation may also help with salinity management by uniformly leaching salts from a crop's root zone.
  • Precision irrigation, including overhead systems, are becoming ever more critical with coming groundwater regulations, surface water cuts and the increasing cost of water for farmers in California.

A significant advantage of overhead irrigation is its compatibility with other farm management technologies that optimize the farming system and reduce costly inputs, including water, fuel, labor and fertilizer.

“We're committed to continuing our work on the whole package – reduced tillage, preserving residue, improving water infiltration, improving soil water-holding capacity and increasing productivity uniformity – a system that we refer to as conservation agriculture,” Mitchell said. “We are working to encourage adoption of conservation agriculture in crops where viability of the system is well established, and facilitate the research and innovation needed to optimize conservation agriculture production in additional crops.”

Posted on Thursday, May 26, 2016 at 10:44 AM

Annual sustainable agriculture event expanded to include farm tours

University of Nebraska's Suat Irmak, facing camera, explains how a high-technology weather station in Nebraska continuously monitors crop evapotraspiration and crop coefficients during the growing season. Irmak presents the keynote address to California farmers Sept. 12.
Sustainable agricultural systems involving precision irrigation and conservation tillage will be featured at the University of California Cooperative Extension’s annual “Twilight Field Day” and a new farm tour, together running from 1 to 8 p.m. Sept. 12.

“We want to introduce more farmers to these proven technologies,” said Jeff Mitchell, UCCE specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis and field day coordinator. “We’ve done research here, and there’s a lot of work from other areas showing that these systems work and they save water, reduce dust, store carbon in the soil and save farmers money.”

This year, the event has been expanded to include an afternoon bus tour to three San Joaquin Valley farms where conservation agriculture systems are already being successfully implemented. Registrants will gather at 1 p.m. at the UC Westside Research and Extension Center, 17353 West Oakland Ave., Five Points, to load the buses.

The farm tour visits:

  • Johnny and Joann Tacharra Dairy in Burrel. The Tacharras will explain their plans to apply dairy waste water through an overhead irrigation system to grow forage crops.

  • Armando Galvan of Five Points Ranch. Galvan will show how he refined his irrigation system to apply water to vegetable and row crops. Galvan installs special nozzles and boom configurations on his overhead irrigation drop lines that are designed to improve water infiltration and avoid ponding and crusting on the soil surface.

  • Scott Schmidt of Farming ‘D’ Ranch in Five Points. Schmidt will discuss the new management strategies that must be applied to successfully implement new agricultural systems.

Following the tour, the participants reconvene at 4 p.m. at the UC Westside REC for a workshop on the economic and environmental benefits of conservation agriculture systems. The event continues with a free barbecue dinner, entertainment by the Wheelhouse Country Band and a keynote address by Suat Irmak, director of the Nebraska Water Center and professor of biological systems engineering. The Water Center was established at the University of Nebraska by congressional mandate in 1964. Nebraska farms currently lead the nation in adopting precision irrigation systems.

Following Irmak’s presentation and discussion, Mitchell will name the 2013 Conservation Tillage Farmer Innovator of the Year award winner.

The expanded event coincides with a concerted effort by the Conservation Agricultural Systems Innovation (CASI) Center to grow the conservation agriculture movement in California. CASI is a diverse group of UC researchers, farmers, public and private industry and environmental groups formed to develop and exchange information on sustainable agricultural systems for California row crops.

“In each century, there are just a handful of times when agriculture can transform itself in revolutionary ways,” Mitchell said. “There is growing evidence that today presents one of those rare chances for agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley to reinvent itself.”

The event is free but pre-registration is requested to help with planning for the bus tour and dinner. Please R.S.V.P. by email to Diana Nix at dlnix@ucdavis.edu or by completing the online survey.

Posted on Wednesday, August 14, 2013 at 10:49 AM
Tags: CASI (8), conservation (2), sustainable (1)

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