Soil health in California cotton fields explored in video series

Over a century of growing cotton in California, scientists and farmers have learned how to better manage soil health. To share their collective knowledge, they have produced a series of videos about cultivating better soil health in cotton fields.

At its peak cotton production, California harvested as much as 1.6 million acres of cotton in the late 1970s to early 1980s. Due to water shortages, growers harvested less than 200,000 acres of cotton in 2020.

“Although cotton acreage in California has fallen off in recent years, some rather impressive advances in soil health management in San Joaquin Valley cotton production fields have been achieved in the past couple of years,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist, who formed the California Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center with growers and production consultants.

In partnership with the Soil Health Institute of Greensboro, NC, the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center has released a four-video series on soil health in California cotton production systems (YouTube links below).

“The series of four videos chronicles not only the history of advances in soil health management in San Joaquin Valley cotton systems, but also some major progress that stems from both long-term research and very recent farmer and private sector innovation with new production paradigms,” Mitchell said.

“San Joaquin Valley farmers have done some really impressive work in recent years to improve the ways that they care for the soil in their fields,” Mitchell said.

To improve soil health, growers try to minimize soil disturbance, enhance biological diversity, keep living roots in the soil and cover the soil with plants and plant residue. They experimented with no tillage and cover crops. Researchers found that cotton fields using no tillage and cover crops achieved a higher soil aggregate stability score than standard tillage with or without a cover crop and no till without a cover crop. In no-till fields with cover crops, water infiltrated the soil in seconds rather than minutes.

The soil health videos range in length from 10 minutes to 21 minutes.

The history video traces important contributors and breakthroughs during the 100-plus years that cotton has been grown in California. 

The second video features progress at improving soil health made by Cary Crum, formerly of California Ag Solutions of Madera now with Agritechnovation, Inc., and cotton farmers he works with in the San Joaquin Valley.  

The third video chronicles the goals and findings of the unique 22-year soil research study that has been underway in Five Points as one of the Soil Health Institute's national program of long-term North American soil health study sites. It shows what is possible when the core soil health principles are implemented consistently in the region. 

The fourth video on the importance of soil aggregate stability shows how attention to the dedicated soil health management principles can improve soil structure and overall production efficiency. 

One important lesson from the study is that growers must be patient, improvements in the soil occur gradually.

“We did not see changes in many soil health properties or indicators during the first eight or actually 10 years of our study,” Mitchell said.

Videos on soil health in California cotton fields:

Soil health management systems for California cotton: A brief history

Recent advances in soil health management in California cotton production systems

Local research base for soil health management in California cotton production systems

Regenerating soil aggregate stability in California cotton production systems


By Pamela Kan-Rice
Author - Assistant Director, News and Information Outreach