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: Conservation 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

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

More irrigation for climate-smart farming and food security in Guatemala

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.

Meagan Terry, left, a UC Davis researcher with the Horticulture Innovation Lab in Guatemala, discusses conservation agriculture with a Guatemalan consultant and a local youth group member. (Photo by Beth Mitcham)
Called MásRiego (“more irrigation”), the project aims to increase farmers' incomes and their use of climate-smart strategies, including drip irrigation, rainwater harvesting, reduced tillage, mulch use and diverse crop rotation. To enable farmers to adopt these new practices, the team will not only provide trainings but also build partnerships to increase farmers' access to needed micro-credit financing and irrigation equipment.

“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

Miguel Isaias Sanchez has started farming with drip irrigation and a water tower, using information from one of the first MásRiego trainings. (Photo by Beth Mitcham)
The new MásRiego project will focus on helping farmers, particularly women and youth, grow high-value crops on very small plots of land (200 square meters minimum), in the Quiché, Quetzaltenango and Totonicapán departments of Guatemala's Western Highlands.

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.

A previous version of this article was published by UC Davis News Service and on the Horticulture Innovation Lab blog


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. 

Posted on Tuesday, August 30, 2016 at 8:02 AM

Overhead irrigation holds water-saving potential for California farms

In California, 40 percent of agriculture is still irrigated by pouring water onto farmland, a much less efficient practice that drip and overhead irrigation. But those numbers are changing, reported Matt Weiser on Water Deeply

Weiser interviewed UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist Jeff Mitchell about the water-saving potential of using overhead irrigation, a system that is popular in other parts of the nation and world, but only used on 2 percent of California farmland. Mitchell was the primary author of a research article in the current issue of California Agriculture journal, which said that water and money can be saved using overhead irrigation in production of wheat, corn, cotton, onion and broccoli.

Mitchell said California researchers are looking more closely at overhead irrigation because they anticipate future constraints on agriculture, including water and labor shortages. Additionally, the system is ideal for combining with conservation agriculture systems, which include the use of cover crops, leaving crop residue on the soil surface and reducing tillage disturbance of the soil. The combination of overhead irrigation and conservation agriculture practices reduces water use, cuts back on dust emissions, increases yield and improves the soil.

Weisner asked how overhead irrigation could be as efficient as drip, when people typically see "water spraying everywhere from these roving sprinklers high off the ground."

Mitchell said farmers use pressure regulators and a variety of nozzles on hoses hanging down from the system to deliver water at precisely the rate and location where it is needed through the season.

"So, they're not spraying water. These are low to the ground, and there are various delivery nozzle practices that can be used," Mitchell said.

Overhead irrigation application methods and locations of application devices change as the plant grows. (Photo: California Agriculture journal)
 
News coverage of the overhead irrigation research published in the current issue of California Agriculture journal also appeared in:
 
Posted on Wednesday, June 22, 2016 at 2:30 PM

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