UC researchers studying how practice can help farmers manage drought, pests, other challenges
Due to severe water shortages, rice acres planted in California plummeted by 37% from 2021 to 2022, according to numbers released recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. But now, thanks to University of California researchers, growers have a new tool they could potentially use to cope with droughts and other environmental and socioeconomic changes.
A crop rotation calculator provides farmers in the Sacramento Valley – where 97% of California rice is grown – with projections on the economic impacts of transitioning their fields from rice into four less water-intensive crops: dry beans, safflower, sunflower or tomato.
The tool represents an initial attempt to address the dearth of research on rice crop rotation in California, while giving growers much-needed, science-backed data on whether the practice would make financial sense for their farms.
“I believe more rice growers could benefit from the many advantages of crop rotation, and this new tool is an excellent first step by the UC to help growers look into making such a transition,” said George Tibbitts, a Colusa County rice farmer.
Funded in part by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, through the Western Integrated Pest Management Center, the calculator is a collaborative effort of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, UC Integrated Pest Management and UC Davis to fill a major gap in rice research.
“I do think there are people who would have tried rotational crops in the past, but it's just so unknown, we didn't have anything we could give them and be like, ‘Hey, this is the recommended crop for your area,'” said Whitney Brim-DeForest, UC Cooperative Extension rice advisor. “This tool gives them some preliminary data they can use to make a more informed decision.”
Crop rotation a potential boon to growers, environment
UC Davis doctoral student Sara Rosenberg and Brim-DeForest, alongside other members of the UC rice research team, surveyed California rice growers in 2020 on their experiences with and perceptions of crop rotation. Although the practice is rare in the Sacramento Valley (only an estimated 10% of rice acreage is under rotation), some farmers reported benefits that could be crucial in a water-scarce future.
“From having conversations with growers who do rotate, one of the biggest benefits they describe is their flexibility in times of drought, where they can keep producing on their land when there isn't enough water to grow rice,” said Rosenberg, noting that crop rotation could be one option in a “toolbox” of strategies that growers also use to manage fertilizer price shocks, herbicide resistance and other challenges.
During the ongoing drought that caused about half of California's rice acreage to go fallow in 2022, Tibbitts said his water district was only able to allocate 10% of his usual allotment.
“With such a limited supply, it would have been tough to grow even one field of rice,” he said. “But it was enough water so that we could rent two of our fields to a tomato grower – tomatoes under drip irrigation use much less water than a flooded field of rice. We were also able to grow one field of sunflowers, which doesn't need any irrigation at all if you can plant the seeds into existing moisture in the early spring.”
While drought is one motivating factor to rotate crops, Tibbitts said that on principle he avoids planting all his acreage in rice and “not have all (his) eggs in one basket.”
“My primary motivation for rotating into and out of rice has been to help with weed and disease control,” he added. “Crop rotation is a primary tool of IPM (integrated pest management), and I feel it has helped me greatly over the years.”
According to Brim-DeForest, rotating cropping systems can allow for the use of different weed control tools, such as different herbicide modes of action, and different cultural controls such as tillage, reducing the chances of selecting for herbicide-resistant weeds – an increasingly pervasive issue in rice systems.
Rosenberg noted that, in some situations – and depending on the crops in rotation – the practice can also disrupt the life cycles of insects and diseases and potentially improve soil structure and increase nutrient cycling and uptake, which may lead to a reduction in inputs such as fertilizer.
More research on crop diversification needed in rice systems
The benefits of crop rotation for California rice growers are largely theoretical and anecdotal, however, so the UC rice team is looking to add evidence-based grounding through a variety of studies – from looking at long-term effects on soil health indicators to testing various cover crops (which may deliver some benefits of diversification, similar to those of rotation).
“In California, there is no quantitative data on crop rotation in rice,” said Brim-DeForest. “You'd think after a hundred and some odd years (of UC agricultural research), all the research would have been done, but, no – there's tons still to do.”
Through interviews with Sacramento Valley growers, researchers found that cost was frequently mentioned as a barrier to trying crop rotation, along with incompatible soil conditions and a lack of equipment, knowledge and experience.
To help clarify those economic uncertainties, the new calculator tool allows growers to enter baseline information specific to their circumstances – whether they rent or own their own land, whether they contract out the work to plant the rotational crop, and other factors. The calculator then generates potential costs and benefits of staying in rice versus rotating to dry beans, safflower, sunflower or tomato, during the first year and in an “average” year for those crops.
The upfront costs of rotation during “year one” can be daunting. Therefore, the tool only focuses on a short-term profitability perspective. Researchers are currently working on longer term modeling for crop rotation – incorporating the possibility of reduced herbicide use over time, and under different crop yield scenarios, for example – that could significantly change the growers' calculus.
“You could actually be profitable in the long term, whereas this first, short glimpse is showing you a negative,” said Rosenberg.
In addition, thanks to collaboration with the UC IPM team, the rice rotation calculator is an evolving tool that will be continually improved based on user feedback and additional data. Brim-DeForest also said that it could be adapted to other cropping systems – for example, alfalfa going into another rotational crop.
The rice calculator tool can be found at: https://rice-rotation-calculator.ipm.ucanr.edu/.
Other contributors to the project include Bruce Linquist, Luis Espino, Ellen Bruno, Kassim Al-Khatib and Michelle Leinfelder-Miles of UCCE; Cameron Pittelkow of UC Davis; as well as UC IPM team members Chinh Lam, Tunyalee Martin and Hanna Zorlu; and the California rice growers and industry members who participated in the research./h3>/h3>/h3>
- Author: Saoimanu Sope
San Diego County used to be home to nearly 25,000 acres of avocado trees but today there are about 14,000. The drastic decrease is largely due to rising costs associated with avocado production, namely the cost of water.
On September 28, avocado growers gathered at the San Diego County Farm Bureau offices for an Avocado Irrigation Workshop facilitated by Ali Montazar, University of California Cooperative Extension irrigation and water management advisor for Imperial, Riverside and San Diego counties.
“All of our information being developed right now is focused on [irrigation] efficiency. Growers want to know how much water they need and what tools they should use to be more efficient,” explained Montazar.
“The sophisticated research in avocado irrigation that Dr. Ali Montazar is conducting is the first of its kind that the University of California has carried out specifically in avocados. His presentation allowed us attendees the opportunity to see and learn about the technology he is employing – from soil moisture sensors to the California Irrigation Management Information System level equipped station.”
Burr is hopeful that Montazar's research will help avocado growers accurately determine the evapotranspiration in an avocado grove or water use specific to avocados, critical parts of how growers select tools to determine irrigation runtimes.
“His presentation that showed his research finding of the avocado Kc (crop coefficient), while very early into his project, was really interesting. It indicates the possibility that we may need to vary the Kc for different times in the growing season, but he is just beginning a two-to-three-year project that will hopefully deliver solid data on what the Kc for avocados is,” said Burr.
Colorado River uncertainty looms
San Diego's avocado production is primarily managed by small farms. According to Montazar, this adds a level of complexity to water management because there is a greater emphasis on irrigation tools and strategies being user-friendly and cost-efficient.
“We don't know the future,” said Montazar. “But we need to be prepared for all consequences. The Colorado River is experiencing a significant water shortage, and this could impact the water supply source for San Diego County from the Imperial Irrigation District Transfer in the future. It is wise to consider enhancing irrigation efficiency as the most viable tool to manage limited water supplies in Southern California.”
Water has always been an issue. In the 1970s, California's water program paved a way for an additional 98,000 acres of agricultural land.
According to a 1970 study analyzing the cost of avocado production in San Diego County, water costs “averaged 3½ acre feet per acre at $60 an acre foot,” which came with the assumption that water costs would remain relatively low and affordable for a long time.
Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. The county of San Diego gets the majority of its water from the Colorado River, which is concerning given five-year projections of the river reaching critically low reservoir levels by 2027.
In fact, beginning in 2023, the San Diego County Water Authority will be raising the rates for water, prompting growers to invest in more efficient irrigation practices (Table 1).
Table 1. Cost for untreated and treated water in San Diego County in 2022 and 2023.
NOTE: An acre-foot is about 325,900 gallons of water.
Training growers on irrigation a top priority
There are no loopholes or short cuts when it comes to irrigation because irrigation is the key to tree health. Ben Faber, Cooperative Extension subtropical crops advisor for Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, points out that tree health is how growers stay in business.
“You can mess up your fertilization program, and you can mess up your pesticide program, but if you mess up your irrigation program, you're out of business,” he said.
According to Faber, efficient irrigation requires a strong grasp on salt management.
“We import water that has a lot of salt in it. So, you've got to figure out how to put the right amount of water on the root zone without causing root health problems,” said Faber.
This process requires meticulous care, as anything that gets below the root zone can cause groundwater contamination – something growers do not want to be responsible for.
While the latest irrigation technology, such as smart controllers, could help growers, Faber said that training and educating farm managers should be the priority.
As Faber puts it, managing irrigation should be “like brushing your teeth” – something that growers do naturally and competently. Many growers are over-irrigating or wasting time trying to resuscitate dying trees. It's important to learn the needs of the tree and, in some cases, it might be best to stop watering all together.
The first step to water efficiency is acquiring knowledge and identifying needs. Because an over-irrigated tree looks just like an under-irrigated tree, it's crucial that growers learn to recognize the difference and plan accordingly.
This is where Cooperative Extension advisors and researchers come in. Opportunities like the Avocado Irrigation Workshop are ideal for growers looking for answers or support.
For more information and to learn about future workshops in San Diego County, visit https://cesandiego.ucanr.edu/.
Study by UCCE advisor in Imperial County also shows 5% increase in yield
A new study suggests that drip irrigation for sweet corn can significantly conserve water, reduce fertilizer use and boost crop yield in the low desert of California – and likely in other areas of the state with similar conditions.
Although Imperial County is California's top sweet corn-producing county, with about 8,000 acres planted on average each year, irrigation methods for this crop have been rarely studied in this region (or anywhere else in the state), according to Ali Montazar, UC Cooperative Extension irrigation and water management advisor for Imperial, Riverside and San Diego counties.
Montazar conducted a study in the Imperial Valley over two crop seasons, 2020-21 and 2021-22, to demonstrate and quantify the potential benefits of switching to drip irrigation from the more common furrow irrigation method. The study, available in a recent issue of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Agricultural Briefs, will be published in a future issue of Vegetables West.
“I'm hoping with this project we can encourage growers to adopt it, because it seems very promising,” said Montazar, noting that drip irrigation is a “new practice” for sweet corn in California.
Among the 11 commercial sweet corn fields in the study over the 2021-22 season, the six that were under drip irrigation used, on average, 37% less water than the five under furrow irrigation. In absolute terms, the drip-irrigated fields saw an average water savings of 2.2 acre-feet per acre; for Montazar, who has studied drip for a variety of crops in the Imperial Valley, that was an astonishing result.
“I've worked with drip on processed onions, lettuce, alfalfa, spinach … we've never seen a figure like 2.2 acre-feet per acre, that's huge,” he said, attributing the dramatic drop-off to the high volume of water required to furrow-irrigate the sandy soil in the Imperial Valley.
More efficient irrigation also means less fertilizer is needed – a boon to the environment and Salton Sea water quality, as well as growers' bottom line. With fertilizer prices continuing to rise, sweet corn growers using drip could see a substantial 25% cost savings on fertilizer expenses – about $150 per acre less – compared to furrow irrigation, according to Montazar's study.
And by relieving plants of the stress from over- and under-irrigated conditions, drip irrigation helps keep soil moisture at its “sweet spot” – resulting in a 5% increase in marketable crop yield for sweet corn in the study.
“When we have a better, more efficient irrigation system, we can maintain soil moisture at a desired level, over time and space,” Montazar explained.
Because the benefits of drip appear to be linked to soil conditions (sandy loam, and other light soils), Montazar believes that this irrigation practice could deliver relatively similar water and fertilizer savings and improved crop yield in other regions across California, regardless of climactic differences.
“If you use drip in any part of the state, you have the benefits of drip – more uniform water application, more uniform fertilizer – that's not related to the desert,” he said. “That's part of the system's potential.”
Montazar plans to follow up on his preliminary study with additional research on sweet corn and drip irrigation during the 2022-23 crop season./h3>
CDFA grant supports research to optimize water use for iconic California crop
California growers, who account for more than 90% of avocado production in the U.S., will soon be getting some help in weathering the extreme fluctuations of climate change.
Ali Montazar, a University of California Cooperative Extension irrigation and water management advisor, recently received a grant to develop tools and strategies that optimize growers' irrigation practices across Southern California – the state's avocado belt. California avocados are valued at more than $411 million, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
“This region faces uncertain water supplies, mandatory reductions of water use, and the rising cost of water – while efficient use of irrigation water is one of the highest conservation priorities,” Montazar said. “Water is the most critically important input to avocado production.”
At the California Avocado Commission's suggestion, Orange County was added to the study to better capture the range of climates and cropping systems across the region, Montazar said.
He hopes to develop “crop coefficients” that avocado growers can use to determine the optimal irrigation for their crop based on a host of factors: soil type and salinity, canopy features, row orientation, slopes, soil and water management practices, and more.
“Growers are unclear on how much water the crop actually needs under those conditions,” Montazar said.
He will incorporate data from the actual water use in the experimental orchards – including information from the newest soil moisture and canopy temperature sensors – to help ensure growers do not under- or overwater their crops. Overirrigating contributes to a devastating disease, avocado root rot, caused by the plant pathogen Phytophthora cinnamomi.
Another component of the grant supports outreach in disseminating these resources and best practices to the broader agricultural community.
“Developing and adopting these tools and information may have a significant impact on water quality and quantity issues and bolster the economic sustainability of avocado production not only in the well-established production region of Southern California, but also in Kern and Tulare counties where new avocado plantings are growing,” Montazar said.
Preliminary findings and recommendations are expected at the end of 2022./h2>
- Author: Lynn M. Sosnoskie
Are you a grower interested in adopting soil moisture monitoring practices, drip or low pressure irrigation systems, and pump retrofits (among many other tools and strategies) to reduce on-farm water and energy use? Then you should check out the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP) grant program (applications are due March 8th 2019 by 5 pm PST).
The text below is directly from the state's website (https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/oefi/sweep/):
What is SWEEP?
The State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP) provides financial assistance in the form of grants to implement irrigation systems that reduce greenhouse gases and save water on California agricultural operations.
How many projects have been funded so far?
CDFA has made grant awards to 614 projects covering over 113,994 acres. $62.7 million has been awarded to date, with more than $40.8 million in matching funds contributed by awardees.
What types of projects are eligible?
Eligible system components include (among others) soil moisture monitoring, drip systems, switching to low pressure irrigation systems, pump retrofits, variable frequency drives and installation of renewable energy to reduce on-farm water use and energy.
What have been the benefits of SWEEP?
Along with helping farmers and ranchers save water and reduce their energy costs, SWEEP results in environmental benefits as well. CDFA estimates that over 75,368 metric tons of CO2e will be reduced annually, the equivalent of removing 16,139 cars from the road for one year (based on emissions reductions equivalent). Moreover, SWEEP projects will help save over 101,050 acre-ft of water water annually, enough to fill 50,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Who can I contact for more information?
If you have questions about SWEEP, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Application information can be found at https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/oefi/sweep/docs/2018_SWEEP_RGA.pdf
A video describing the application process can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05_SnluVzcc
Frequently asked questions are addressed here: https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/oefi/sweep/docs/2018_SWEEP_FAQ.pdf