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: irrigation

A nutty idea: A little stress could be good for walnuts

When it comes to watering walnuts, most California growers believe you need to start early to keep trees healthy and productive throughout the long, hot summer. But according to striking results from a long-term experiment in a walnut orchard in Red Bluff, growers can improve crop production if they hold off irrigation until later in the season and directly measure their trees' water needs.

The findings from researchers at the University of California may help farmers optimize water use.

“It's a game-changer,” said walnut grower Hal Crain, who welcomed researchers on to his orchard to test irrigation optimization. “It's clear to me you can improve nut quality and yield by applying water based on what the tree wants and needs, rather than just watering when it's hot outside and the soil is dry. That's a big deal for walnut growers and for the entire agricultural industry.”

Hal Crain's family has been growing walnuts for 55 years.

 Changing the paradigm

Crain is a second-generation farmer whose family has been growing walnuts in Butte and Tehama counties for 55 years. Like most walnut farmers, Crain had always started irrigating in early to mid-May when the days grew warmer and the trees sprouted leaves.

“That's standard practice for probably 90 percent of California's walnut growers,” said Crain, walking amid his trees on a sunny afternoon. “The theory is that when you irrigate early, you preserve the deep moisture in the soil that trees need to survive the heat of summer.”

But that's not how it works, the research shows. Instead, trees that grow in saturated soil early in the season don't develop the deep roots they need to thrive.

“With all the water right there at the surface, the lower roots suffer,” explained Bruce Lampinen, UC Cooperative Extension orchard management specialist with the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. “Trees end up with a very shallow root system, which doesn't serve them well as they try to extract moisture from the soil later on.”

Lampinen has long suspected that walnuts were getting too much water in the spring.

“A lot of the symptoms we see like yellowing leaves and various diseases can all be explained by overwatering,” said Lampinen.

So Lampinen did what scientists do: He set up an experiment. Five years ago, with funding from the California Walnut Board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he joined forces with Ken Shackel, a plant sciences professor with UC Davis, and Allan Fulton, an irrigation adviser with UC Cooperative Extension. Together, they led a team of scientists testing irrigation on Crain's ranch. 

“Hal is an exceptional partner,” Fulton said. “Farmers have a lot to accommodate when they host an experiment like this, with researchers going in and out of the orchard at all hours. He had to work around our people and the timing of our water treatments. He's always eager to experiment with technology and learn new things, and he shares what he learns with other growers. Hal completes the circle.”

Tough nut to crack

When is the best time to irrigate? Researchers say the trees hold the answer. Scientists use pressure chambers, which are air-pressure devices that measure a leaf or small shoot to gauge how hard the plant is working to pull moisture from the soil.

“Just because the soil looks dry doesn't mean the plant is suffering,” said Shackel, who specializes in plant physiology. “Pressure chambers let you ask the tree how it's feeling — sort of like taking a human's blood pressure — which is a much more accurate way to measure a plant's water needs.”

Professor Ken Shackel and Cooperative Extension Specialist Bruce Lampinen test pressure chamber in UC Davis walnut grove.

For the last five years, the team has been applying different water treatments to five blocks of trees. One block is getting standard, early irrigation. Crain's orchard managers begin irrigating the other blocks when the trees reach different levels of water stress based on pressure-chamber readings.

The trees that experience moderate stress are doing the best. Their irrigation usually starts in mid-to-late June, several weeks later than when standard watering begins.

“You can tell just by looking at that block that the trees are healthier,” said Crain, standing beneath a canopy of lush, green trees. “And, we're starting to see greater yields and better nut quality.”

Translating the research

The research is helping scientists advise farmers on irrigation.

“My biggest take-away is knowing when to start watering is a really important factor to the health of your trees,” Lampinen says.

Pressure chambers — sometimes called pressure bombs — can cost more than $3,000, and high-tech versions are under development.  

“I tell growers a pressure bomb would pay for itself even if you just used it once a year to determine when to start watering,” Lampinen said.

Crain is certainly convinced.

“When you irrigate based on your trees' needs, you optimize water,” Crain says. “I'm not using less water overall, but the water I do use is producing more food. That's good news for everyone.”

This story was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of Outlook Magazine, the alumni magazine for the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. 

Posted on Tuesday, November 6, 2018 at 9:20 AM
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

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

Russell Ranch field day at UC Davis is June 8

A researcher speaks at the 2015 Russell Field Day. (Photo: Agricultural Sustainability Institute)
The Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility, located near the UC Davis campus, will be holding its annual field day June 8 on the theme of "Farm Water Management in Times of Scarcity." Members of the public are encouraged to attend.

Presenters will explore research, farmers' practices, and commercial products that aim to make California agriculture more resilient in the face of drought, weather extremes, and uncertain water allocations. Presentations from researchers in the morning will be followed by lunch and a panel discussion with area growers.

The field day is free for farmers, $5 for students, and $10 for the general public.

Russell Ranch is a unique 300-acre facility dedicated to investigating irrigated and dry-land agriculture in a Mediterranean climate. The ranch is run like a commercial farm and features a variety of research activities by UC faculty and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources researchers, with the aim of informing California agricultural practices. Russell Ranch is home to the flagship 100-year Century Experiment, an ongoing mega-experiment focusing on sustainable agricultural practices in California.

Since 1994, Russell Ranch has hosted an annual field day to share research findings related to pressing topics in California agriculture. This year's event will focus on a common challenge of farm fields across California: how to ensure healthy crops when the availability of key resources is uncertain.

The field day includes tours of Russell Ranch, in-field presentations, panel discussions with growers, and a poster session to learn about the variety of research and outreach on the topic of water management and scarcity.

The schedule of events is as follows:

8:30 – 11:30 a.m. Presentations from researchers

11:45 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. Lunch; view research posters and exhibitions from vendors of commercial irrigation products

12:30 – 1:15 p.m. Farmer panel discussion: Water Management on Farm: Challenges and Opportunities

The field day features presentations from:

Olivier Jerphagnon, PowWow Energy, Inc.
Stan Knutson, PowWow Energy, Inc.
Teresa Carillo-Cobo, Agricultural Sustainability Institute post-doctoral scholar
Amelie Gaudin, Assistant professor, Dept. of Plant Sciences at UC Davis
Martin Burger, Associate Project Scientist, Dept. of Land, Air, and Water Resources at UC Davis

Mark Lundy, Assistant Cooperative Extension Specialist, Dept. of Plant Sciences at UC Davis
Dan Putnam, Cooperative Extension Specialist, Dept. of Plant Sciences at UC Davis
Daniele Zaccaria, Assistant Cooperative Extension Specialist, Dept. of Land, Air, and Water Resources at UC Davis
Tim Hartz, Cooperative Extension Specialist/Agronomist, Dept. of Plant Sciences at UC Davis
Toby O'Geen, Cooperative Extension Soil Resources Specialist, Dept. of Land, Air, and Water Resources at UC Davis

Graham Fogg, Professor of Hydrogeology, Dept. of Land, Air, and Water Resources at UC Davis
Darren Drewry, Research Scientist, Climate Physics Group, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Russell Ranch's Annual Field Day
Farm Water Management in Times of Scarcity
June 8, 2016, 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Register at: https://registration.ucdavis.edu/Item/Details/246

Tickets

Farmers: free
Students: $5
General: $10

Posted on Wednesday, June 1, 2016 at 5:54 AM
Tags: drought (6), irrigation (22), Russell Ranch (1)

Second video in series helps Californians conserve more water

It's best to irrigate early in the morning. (Photo: Ricardo Bernardo)
Californians cut water use in July by 31.3 percent compared to the same month in 2013, exceeding Gov. Brown's 25 percent mandate for the second consecutive month, the California State Water Control Board reported last week.

With dry conditions forecast to continue through November, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources developed a series of videos with tips for enhancing conservation efforts in outdoor landscapes. The second video in the series, which debuts today, advises homeowners to limit outdoor irrigation to the early morning hours.

In the morning, says host Missy Gable, director of the UC Master Gardener Program, “you're not competing with sun or wind, both of which can cause water to evaporate from the soil.”

An obstacle to changing irrigation times for some Californians is a lack of familiarity with their own irrigation systems. The California Garden Web is an informative service of the UC Master Gardener Program that can help users understand the basics of irrigation controllers and irrigation system adjustment.

The website provides a link where residents can find their irrigation controller manuals online. A landscape irrigation worksheet developed by UC ANR researchers can be downloaded to finesse irrigation intervals and timing.

Much more gardening information can be found on the California Garden Web, which serves as a portal to organize and share UC ANR's vast collection of research-based information about gardening.

Following is the second video in the new series on water conservation in landscapes:

View the first video in the series, with advise on prioritizing plants when irrigation water is short.

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 Monday, August 31, 2015 at 10:33 AM
Tags: drought (6), irrigation (22), Missy Gable (1)

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