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

UC blogs

Grasscycling can help Californians conserve water

An electric mulching mower, which cuts grass clippings into fine pieces and leaves them on the lawn. (Photo: Cheryl Reynolds)
Gov. Jerry Brown asked Californians to cut water use by 20 percent a year ago. Officials at the State Water Resources Board announced in March that water users haven't come close to meeting the conservation goal. To help homeowners save water while maintaining a beautiful lawn, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) horticulture advisors recommend “grasscycling” turf at homes, schools, parks and businesses this spring and summer.

In short, grasscycling involves leaving grass clippings on the lawn, rather than collecting them in a bag and shipping them off to a landfill.

“The clippings sift down to the soil surface and act like a mulch, reducing water evaporation so you can cut back on irrigation,” said Karrie Reid, UC ANR Cooperative Extension environmental horticulture advisor in San Joaquin County. “This is a simple and elegant way to save water that requires very little extra effort.”

If you don't have a mulching mower, Reid says, “It's probably time to replace the mower.” As an alternative, a mulching blade can be attached the bottom of most mowers. The special blade makes a second cut when mowing over grass, cutting grass clippings into finer pieces.

In most California climates, mowing once a week with a mulching mower is sufficient. If grass is growing so quickly a once-per-week mowing cuts off more than one-third of the blade, it's a sign that too much water is being applied.

In addition to reducing water use, grasscycling cuts down on fertilizer needs.

“As the clippings break down, nutrients are returned to the soil,” Reid said. “Most of the fertilizer that is applied to lawns ends up in the leaf blades, so it only makes sense to retain as much of that on the lawn as possible.”

A five-page UC ANR publication on mowing and grasscycling is available for free download from the UC ANR Catalog. The publication includes a table with mower height settings for the most common types of turf grass grown in California.

In addition to working with horticulture professionals, Reid serves as advisor to the coordinator and volunteers of the UC Master Gardener program in San Joaquin County. Master Gardeners are UC ANR volunteers who are trained by UC academics in sustainable landscape, ornamental tree and garden development and maintenance.

More than 6,000 volunteer Master Gardeners form a network to disseminate research-based gardening information across the state, donating upwards of 350,000 hours of time each year.

An initiative to improve California water quality, quantity and security is part of the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Author: Jeannette Warnert

Posted on Thursday, March 5, 2015 at 11:26 AM

California: A good place to bee

Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño (Photo by Anand Varma)
“Honey bees are good teachers and we can all learn from them,” says Elina Lastro Niño, the new Cooperative Extension apiculturist for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Each hive has its own personality and own temperament.”

Niño, based at UC Davis, is as busy as the proverbial worker bee during a colony's spring build up as she settles into her new position involving research, education and outreach.

“California is a good place to be,” she said. “I just wish I could have brought some of that Pennsylvania rain with me to help out California's drought.”

Her lab not only aims to conduct applied research that leads to practical solutions, but to alert the state's beekeepers about new research, and develop web-based educational tools. She writes the bimonthly newsletter, “from the UC apiaries." (See her newsletter section on her website, and see the archived editions by Eric Mussen on his website). In addition, she will be serving on various advisory boards to allow “us to guide decision making and legislation based on the most up to date scientific information.”

Niño operates her field lab at Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus. She also maintains a lab and office in Briggs Hall. Her aims: to conduct practical, problem-solving research projects; to support the state's beekeepers through research, extension and outreach; and to address beekeeper and industry concerns.

Niño, who studies honey bee biology, health, reproduction, pollination biology, insect ecology, evolution, genomics and chemical ecology, replaces Eric Mussen, who retired in June 30 after 38 years of service.

“Elina is a very accomplished scientist,” said Mussen. “Her research involves the reproductive processes involved in queen bee mating, including the impacts of oviduct manipulation, insemination volume and insemination substances. The induced changes include measurable behavioral, physiological and molecular alterations that occur, including differences in behavioral interactions between queens and worker bees.”

Niño has already met with many of the state's beekeepers, attended meetings of the California State Beekeepers' Association, the California Bee Breeders' Association, and the Almond Board of California, and charmed youngsters from the California School of the Blind, Fremont, who asked many questions about honey bees.

“I love meeting people,” she said. She delights in answering questions, including those from inquisitive school children.

Honey bee pollinating almond blossom. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
One of the most common questions: “Do you get stung?” Answer: “Yes, many times.”

Some don't know that all worker bees are females, that they do all the work. They are fascinated with the queen bee, which can lay as many as 2,000 eggs a day during peak season. Once a youngster, thinking about the queen bee, asked: “What happened to the king?”

Bees are in a global decline due to pesticides, parasites, pests, malnutrition and stress. Niño says most people have heard of colony collapse disorder, and many know that the average beekeeper loses approximately 30 percent of the colonies each winter due to the combined effect of various pests, pathogens, environmental toxins, and poor nutrition.

“My research and extension goals are to provide stakeholders with practical tools that better equip them to confront these challenges. My primary research focus is to characterize biological factors that regulate honey bee queen reproduction. By better understanding these factors, we can improve the honey bee breeding protocols necessary for creating and maintaining resilient honey bee stock.”

Elina Niño wasn't always so totally devoted to bees. Born and reared in Bosnia in Eastern Europe, Elina moved to the United States with plans to become a veterinarian. She obtained her bachelor's degree in animal science at Cornell University, but while there, enrolled in an entomology class on the recommendation of her advisor. “I was hooked,” she recalled.

Following her graduation from Cornell in 2003, she received her master's degree in entomology from North Carolina State University and her doctorate in entomology from Pennsylvania State University. While at Penn State, she sought to add to her applied-research expertise and gain experience in basic research. She joined the honey bee lab of Christina Grozinger, who studies the genomics of chemical communication and collaborates with researcher David Tarpy on understanding queen bee post-mating changes.

After attending her first lab meeting, “I was hooked again!” Niño recalled.

She and her fellow researchers confirmed that carbon dioxide causes queens to stop attempting mating flights and helps them start producing eggs. They also found that instrumental insemination triggers changes in Dufour's gland pheromone. Understanding the regulation of reproductive processes can lead to better management practices for improved colony productivity and health, Niño said.

Niño is now settled in Davis with her husband, Bernardo Niño, a former senior research technologist in the Grozinger lab and now a staff research associate at the Laidlaw facility; their toddler son, Sebastian; and their dog, a Doberman named Zoe. Bernardo, who managed some 40 to 50 colonies at Penn State, received his bachelor's degree in biology from St. Edward's University, Austin, Texas; and his master's degree in entomology from North Carolina State University, Raleigh.

Elina is building up her research team, which includes Bernardo; and staff research associate Billy Synk and doctoral candidate W. Cameron Jasper of the Brian Johnson lab.

“We view ourselves as the liaison between the beekeepers and other relevant growers and the scientific community,” Elina said. “We are continuing research on queen mating and reproduction, especially considering the importance of Northern California beekeepers for the queen rearing and bee breeding enterprises.”

They will expand their work to include studies “crucial for supporting honey bee health.” Current collaborate work includes examining the effects of Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, Deformed Wing Virus and Nosema gene expression regulation and longevity in workers. Understanding the molecular mechanisms that underlie individual responses to specific honey bee pathogens, Elina said, “can lead to the implementation of appropriate beekeeping practices.”

“In the near future, we plan to contribute to the general understanding of synergistic effects of pesticides on honey bee health and collaborate on research evaluating alternative Varroa mite control.”

How would she describe herself? “Like a rock. I don't get easily disturbed. There's not a lot that fazes me. I find a way to figure out a problem and find a solution.”

Now she and her “Bee” team--that is, Bernardo and Billy--are gearing up for their inaugural queen bee rearing short-course March 28-29 at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. She will continue teaching these  short courses to beekeepers with basic bee experience who want to learn more about rearing queens.

Another pending activity: she'll be judging the California 4-H Honey Bee Essay Contest, “Planting for Bees from Backyards and Up” (http://preservationofhoneybees.org/essays). The contest closed Feb. 20.

Meanwhile, Niño has set up her lab's website at http://elninobeelab.ucdavis.edu/; a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/elninolab and has obtained an easy-to-remember email in the form of "el nino": elnino@ucdavis.edu.

“California is a good place to be,” she reiterated.

An initiative to enhance competitive and sustainable food systems is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Elina Lastro Niño working a hive. (Photo courtesy of Elina Lastro Niño)
Elina Lastro Niño working a hive. (Photo courtesy of Elina Lastro Niño)

Elina Lastro Niño working a hive. (Photo courtesy of Elina Lastro Niño)

Posted on Wednesday, March 4, 2015 at 10:02 AM

Teachers invited to learn about natural resources in the forest

Mike De Lasaux shows FIT participants the tree rings in a core sample.
California teachers are invited to spend a week in a northern California forest this summer and participate in the Forestry Institute for Teachers.

“The goal of the Forestry Institute for Teachers, or FIT, is to provide K-12 teachers with knowledge, skills and tools to teach their students about forest ecology and forest resource management practices and introduce them to environmental education curriculum such as Project Learning Tree, Project WILD and California's Education and the Environment,” said Mike De Lasaux, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension advisor for Plumas and Sierra counties and a FIT instructor.

The program, which is in its 23rd year, brings teachers from rural and urban settings together with natural resources experts to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between forest ecosystems and human use of natural resources. The environment becomes the basis for learning in many subject areas, including environmental science, physical science, social science, biology, forestry and history.

“FIT gave me a lot of physical group activities and ideas for how to get to know a new group of people,” said Renata Martin, who is a substitute teacher for grades 3 through 8 in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Teachers learn how to take tree measurements.
By examining the rings in a tree's cross-section, foresters can tell a lot about events – such as wet or dry periods, insect or disease damage – that have occurred during the tree's lifetime. She has used the tree analogy to teach students that important events shape their own lives.

“Especially because I meet new kids every day, I've been able to use the lesson that we did around the campfire the first night with sharing important points in our lives as if they were tree cookies” or slices of a tree, said Martin.

FIT emphasizes California Department of Education Content Standards including Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards. Since 1993, more than 2,200 teachers have graduated from the program. 

Using what they learn at the workshop, the participants conduct training for their colleagues and develop a forestry education project for their students during the school year.

Martin, who participated in FIT in 2014 in Plumas County, said she has adapted many of the lessons for her students based on their age, development and behavior.

Tom Catchpole leads a Talk About Trees program exercise for teachers to practice applying tree science to activities they can do with their students.
Meeting forest-related professionals including small property owners, archaeologists, large lumber corporations and historians made an impression on environmental educator Carrie Raleigh. “It was interesting to get a variety of perspectives on forestry issues and to have face-to-face conversations with a variety of specialists,” said Rawleigh, who participated in the program in 2010 and teaches in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Four 1-week FIT sessions are scheduled at four different locations: Plumas, Tuolumne, Shasta and Humboldt counties.

Two June sessions will be held at the University of California Forestry Camp, close to Quincy in Plumas County, and at Sierra Outdoor School near Sonora in Tuolumne County. The July sessions will be at Camp McCumber just east of Shingletown in Shasta County and at Humboldt State University in Arcata in Humboldt County.

The presenters and staff include public and private forest resource specialists and other natural resource managers, environmental activists and science and environmental education curriculum specialists. Groups are welcome to register as teams. There is an application fee of $25, but training, meals and lodging are free for first-time participants.

The deadline for applications is March 16. For more information and to apply, visit http://forestryinstitute.org or call the Forest Stewardship Helpline at (800) 783-8733. 

The Forestry Institute for Teachers (FIT) workshop was developed by the Northern California Society of American Foresters, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension, Shasta County Office of Education, The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and Project Learning Tree. The FIT Program is underwritten by a consortium of public and private sources.

An initiative to maintain and enhance sustainable natural ecosystems is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Posted on Wednesday, March 4, 2015 at 9:54 AM

Now here's some real California culture

The UC ANR publication 'Farmstead and Artisan Cheeses' helps new cheesemakers start up their businesses.
Thanks to the happy cows of the California Milk Advisory Board, many know that California leads the nation in milk production. While you may think of Vermont or Wisconsin when you think of cheese, specialty cheeses make up about 11 percent of California's cheese production, creating a growing niche market.

Today artisan cheesemaking is a $119-million dollar industry in Marin and Sonoma, and the two counties are home to the second-largest concentration of artisan and farmstead cheesemakers in the country. The trend in farmstead and artisan cheesemaking shows no sign of slowing — membership in the California Artisan Cheesemakers' Guild increased 15 percent in 2014.

Navigating the start-up of any business is hard work, but cheesemaking has its own special challenges. UC Agriculture and Natural Resources has published a bestselling manual designed for the beginning cheesemaker. Farmstead and Artisan Cheeses: A Guide to Building a Business walks readers through the steps necessary to establishing a cheesemaking business.

California has a rich history of cheesemaking, this year the Marin French Cheese Company celebrates its 150th anniversary, making it the longest continually operating cheese company in the United States.

Starting in the mid-1990s, California cheesemaking began a renaissance with a handful of dedicated small producers. UC Cooperative Extension advisors nurtured the emerging farmstead and artisan cheesemaking culture. Working with local producers, they developed the cheesemaking certificate program offered at the College of Marin and published what is now the leading book on building an artisan and farmstead cheese business; industry surveys lent credibility to the emerging market and enabled the growing ranks of cheesemakers to secure start-up funds.

Marking artisan cheese is a value-added option for California dairies. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Last July, Sacramento played host to the annual meeting and competition of the American Cheese Society, and California cheesemakers received top honors. In a field of 1,685 cheeses and cultured dairy products, Oakdale Cheese & Specialties of Oakdale took home the top prize for Aged Gouda, American made, Dutch style, and also garnered Third Place "Best in Show." Another venerable California cheesemaker, Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese, won Second Place "Best in Show" for it's Bay Blue.

So where do you start if you'd like to try your hand at cheesemaking?

The California Cheese Trail website offers a wealth of information about cheesemaking classes for everyone from the novice making their first ricotta at home to professional certificate programs. Likewise, Grown in Marin, a resource of UC Cooperative Extension in Marin County, posts an exhaustive list of resources for the North Bay, epicenter of the California's artisan cheese movement.

The 9th annual California Artisan Cheese Festival takes place March 20 - 22, 2015 in Petaluma. This celebration of real California culture brings together artisan cheesemakers, chefs, and the public for three days of seminars, tastings, and farm tours.

Posted on Tuesday, March 3, 2015 at 9:40 AM

California black rail likes leaks

The California black rail is heard but rarely seen.
While Californians are tightening their pipes to conserve water during this fourth year of drought, the California black rail might say, “Let it leak,” if it could speak.

The rare bird species makes its home in marshes created in large part by leaky pipes, stock ponds, irrigation tailwater and unlined canals. Even the springs that support some habitat may rely on water flowing from leaky canals. In 1994, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources scientists found the small, red-eyed bird with the black breast and speckled black feathers at UC ANR's Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center. Since its discovery, a group of scientists have been exploring the effects of water management and climate change on the bird in Sutter, Butte and Yuba counties.

California black rails, which can be heard more often than seen, largely depend on humans and irrigated agriculture to provide the shallow flowing water they use for habitat.

Accidental wetlands created by leaky pipes and ponds are habitat for the black rail habitat.
Because most of the rangeland in the area is privately held, and includes irrigated pasture for livestock, Lynn Huntsinger, professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, wondered if property owners would be willing to maintain wetlands to support wildlife.

With the help of UC ANR Cooperative Extension advisors Glenn Nader and Roger Ingram, Huntsinger conducted a survey of 1,000 landowners in the three counties.

Property owners responding to the survey said the primary reason for maintaining ponds and wetlands is to reduce wildfire risk, but they also like the birds and wildlife that are attracted by wet areas. However, Huntsinger worries that the “accidental wetlands” may dry up as the drought increases the pressure on people to conserve water by fixing leaks and replacing canals built during the 19th century Gold Rush with pipes.

Most of the farmers and ranchers buy water from a water district so Huntsinger sees working with water districts as a key to the sustainability of wetlands for wildlife.

Property owners favor ponds to protect against wildfire and to support wildlife.
“Water is going to be more expensive and harder to access given the trends in weather and population demand,” she said. To predict how long landowners will continue to maintain wetlands if water prices rise, Huntsinger is working with Jose Oviedo, an environmental economist in Spain.

More and more, she says, it seems that we are facing tradeoffs between “goods”— saving water is good and preserving wildlife habitat is good. “We need flexibility and adaptation rather than all or nothing choices. After all, we are creating the future landscape of California,” Huntsinger said.

Huntsinger's study is just one facet of a California black rail study that involves scientists with different kinds of expertise.

Steve Beissinger, professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, has been studying black rail behavior for years and continues to monitor how many sites in the Sierra foothills the small birds use as habitat.

Canals at the UC ANR Sierra Foothill Research & Extension date back to the Gold Rush days.
Norman Miller, a Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory hydrologist, is developing models to understand the water dynamics and sustainability of the wetlands habitat.

Marm Kilpatrick, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz, studies how concern about mosquito-borne West Nile virus may affect landowners' decisions to maintain wetlands.

“It is a novel ecosystem, offering habitat engineered by people and their livestock that happens to offer the black rail what it needs,” Huntsinger said. “We just don't know enough about conservation in this kind of situation. Managing traditional landscapes is common in Europe, but rare in the United States.”

For more information about the California black rail, see the California Agriculture article “California black rails depend on irrigation-fed wetlands in the Sierra Nevada foothills.”

Below, UC Berkeley graduate student Nathan Van Schmidt describes research at UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center on how the rails cope with drought, seasonal hydrology regimes, and the rescue effect.

An initiative to maintain and enhance sustainable natural ecosystems is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Posted on Tuesday, March 3, 2015 at 9:17 AM

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