Posts Tagged: Conservation Agriculture
“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.
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.
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?
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:
Connecting 9,000 rural households in Guatemala with improved water management and climate-smart agriculture strategies is the goal of a new project led by a team at UC Davis, to ultimately increase food security and reduce poverty in Guatemala's Western Highlands.
“The opportunity to impact so many farmers' lives on this scale is exciting,” said Beth Mitcham, director of the Horticulture Innovation Lab and a UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. “We're taking lessons learned from our previous research — in Guatemala, Honduras and Cambodia — and building a team to help more small-scale farmers apply our findings and successfully use these innovative practices.”
The new project is part of the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future. The project represents an additional $3.4 million investment in the UC Davis-led Horticulture Innovation Lab by the U.S. Agency for International Development's mission in Guatemala.
The project's international team also includes representatives from Kansas State University; North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University; the Centro de Paz Bárbara Ford in Guatemala; Universidad Rafael Landívar in Guatemala; and the Panamerican Agricultural School, Zamorano, in Honduras.
“The learning shared between these three U.S. universities and the universities in Honduras and Guatemala will be enriching for all of the institutions involved,” said Manuel Reyes, research professor at Kansas State University who is part of the team. “I find it satisfying that these academic institutions will be investing intellectually in marginalized groups in Guatemala's Western Highlands — and in turn, learning from them too.”
Helping youth envision a future in agriculture
By partnering with local youth groups and agricultural schools, the team will better prepare students for jobs in commercial agriculture and agricultural extension with knowledge of climate-resilient conservation and water management practices.
“Our local team is training youth as entrepreneurs, to see agriculture as an economic opportunity instead of just back-breaking work,” said Meagan Terry, UC Davis junior specialist who is managing the project in Guatemala for the Horticulture Innovation Lab. “They can envision a future in agriculture, with innovative ways to create value-added products or grow high-value crops for niche markets.”
As rainfall patterns vary with climate change, farmers in this region are expected to face increased competition for water. Practices such as rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation and conservation agriculture will become more necessary for small-scale farmers.
Climate-smart lessons from conservation agriculture, drip irrigation
In previous research, the Horticulture Innovation Lab has found that combining drip irrigation with conservation agriculture practices can successfully grow vegetables on small plots of land, without significant yield reductions. These practices improve soil structure, moisture retention and soil health.
Additionally, women farmers who participated in the Horticulture Innovation Lab studies in Cambodia, Honduras and Guatemala favored using these practices for another important reason: reduced labor in relation to controlling weeds, vegetable bed preparation and manual watering.
“I dream for many women, youth and their families, that their lives will be better off because of 'MasRiego' and the science behind this work,” Reyes said. “As for the research, we are learning how to improve this suite of practices so they can be tailor fitted globally. I am convinced that if this picks up, steep sloping lands can be farmed with the soil quality not being degraded — but even being enriched.”
These lessons, as well as findings from the program's “Advancing Horticulture” report about horticultural sector growth in Central America, lay the foundation for this new project.
Curious about partnering with the Horticulture Innovation Lab? The Horticulture Innovation Lab builds partnerships between agricultural researchers in the United States and researchers in developing countries, to conduct fruit and vegetable research that improves livelihoods in developing countries. The program currently has three research grant opportunities for U.S. researchers: one focused on tomatoes, another on apricots, and a third on integrated crop-livestock systems.
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 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.”
Jeffrey Mitchell of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR).
“The soil-water interaction under various soil management practices will be quite clear if we do get the increased rainfall this winter that has been forecast,” Mitchell said. “Soil high in organic matter and covered by plant residue will allow increased water infiltration and storage, less water runoff and, on a large scale, increased groundwater recharge.”
Mitchell, a UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist based at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, has researched conservation agricultural practices for nearly 20 years. He is chair of UC ANR's Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center (CASI), a collaborative organization involving researchers, farmers and industry partners who aim to increase the use of conservation practices in California.
Most farmers in the San Joaquin Valley till their land after harvesting row crops believing they have to create clean planting beds for seeding and establishment of subsequent crops. The practice, Mitchell said, is influenced mainly by tradition.
Research at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center that has been ongoing since 1999 has documented striking changes in plots after sustained cover cropping and no-till management. In addition to improved soil properties, the plots managed with conservation agriculture practices have comparable or in some cases higher yields, less soil water evaporation, lower dust emissions and, because of the higher soil organic matter, sequestered more carbon than adjacent plots managed using conventional practices.
In other parts of the world, generating and preserving plant residues are an indispensable part of farm management. Increasingly in California, farmers are implementing conservation tillage practices.
In addition to protecting soil from driving rain and wind in the winter, the plant residues provide important benefits in the summer. The plant residue on the surface shades the soil, providing a beneficial cooling effect, and soil with high organic content has higher moisture holding capacity.
“A number of studies from both irrigated and rain-fed regions around the United States where no-tillage is used have reported annual irrigation savings of as much as four to five inches,” Mitchell said.
Good soil management also promotes its biological diversity, noted Randal Southard, a CASI member and professor in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at UC Davis.
“Reducing soil disturbance, keeping the soil covered with plant residues and promoting high biological diversity provide soils with resilience – the ability of soils to accommodate changes in a wide array of environmental conditions,” Southard said. “Soil resilience or soil health is similar to how we think of human health, including overall well-being and the ability to resist diseases and other maladies.”
Soil is getting increasing attention in California and worldwide. The United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soils to raise awareness about a substance that is the very foundation of life on earth. The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service launched a Soil Health Campaign and the California Department of Food and Agriculture has created a Healthy Soils Initiative.
A network of soil health demonstration evaluations is now being created by CASI in California. Local teams are being organized in Sacramento, Mendocino, Stanislaus, Fresno and Kern counties involving Resource Conservation Districts, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and UC ANR Cooperative Extension researchers and local farmers. The farmers will set aside small comparison plots to evaluate practices that are believed to improve soil health and the researchers will have a role in monitoring and documenting changes.
“Each of these efforts points to the pivotal role healthy soils have in food security, agricultural sustainability and climate change resiliency,” Mitchell said.
Author: Jeannette Warnert