Posts Tagged: cover crops
A group of California organic farmers is sharing information about their efforts to combine reduced tillage with the use of cover crops, which they have been planting on their vegetable farms for decades to protect soil while adding carbon and diversity to their production systems.
“Every one of the pioneering farmers has seen tremendous benefits from the practices,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist. “These are the very growing practices that we have demonstrated over two decades of research to benefit soil health, environmental conservation and the bottom line on plots near Five Points in Fresno County.”
The organic farmer research project is funded with a Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) and aims to develop crop production system alternatives for vegetable crops. The farmers are seeing evidence of the ecological benefits, and also benefits that promote the public good.
“Consumers prefer food that is grown in ways that improve soil health as well as environmental health and human health,” Mitchell said. “Farmers must not become obsolete by ignoring ever-evolving buyer demands and environmental imperatives. Make changes, or you'll lose markets.”
The need for California farmers to adjust to changing times was to have been part of the dialogue at a public field day in March at Teixeira & Sons Farm in Firebaugh. It was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns. The event was to showcase Mitchell's data and the experiences of long-time cover crop farmer John Teixeira of Firebaugh.
Teixeira began cover cropping 30 years ago in one of his organic fields. He wanted to build fertility, organic matter and water holding capacity in the soil. Ever since, he's been growing cover crops ahead of tomatoes and several other commodities. This past winter, he grew a mixture of common, hairy and purple vetch, white oats, biomaster peas and bell beans. Teixeira estimates that it provided over 5,000 pounds per acre of dry biomass, which is supporting his 2020 tomato crop with elevated biological activity in the soil.
Mitchell's study in Five Points has tracked impacts of winter cover cropping coupled with no-till since 1999. Over the 21 years, some 37 tons of organic matter, or about 15 tons of carbon, have been added to the soil. These inputs averaged about 3,700 pounds per acre of organic matter, or 0.8 tons of carbon annually. Year-to-year variability has been high, ranging from 8,800 pounds in 2000 when supplemented by irrigation, to 54 pounds in 2007 when, as in most years, the cover crops were grown with rainfall only. Cover crops were typically seeded by Nov. 15 each fall and terminated around March 15.
Several key soil-health indicators improved over the years, including aggregation (or soil structure), porosity and water-holding capacity. Work at the Five Points site conducted by UC Merced professor Teamrat Ghezzehei and Ph.D. student Samuel Araya, has shown 20% higher water-holding capacity in the system with cover crops and no-till compared to the standard bare system.
Earlier results from the study field have shown that when the cover crop and other crop residues are converted to a mulch and left on the soil surface, as much as five inches of water that would normally evaporate during a typical summer crop period stays in the soil.
Mitchell is coordinating the group of organic farmers who are conducting cover crop, tillage and mulch experiments. The farmers cultivate vegetables up and down the Central Valley from Meridian and Guinda in the north, to Dixon, Hollister, Madera, Five Points and Buttonwillow in the south.
“They are an incredible group of people,” Mitchell said. “They have taken soil, farm and human health goals to dramatically important lengths.”
As organic farmers, they have always been in the forefront of soil care and attention to soil biology, Mitchell said, but they're now working together to implement such innovations as virtually year-round soil cover, reduced disturbance tillage, and integration of grazing animals into their fields. Their objective is to enhance the health of their soils, the health of their farms, and the quality of the vegetables that they produce.
Tom Willey, one of the project's farmers from Madera, puts it this way, “What we're attempting to do is up our game on natural systems mimicry on our farms, break through the barrier of over-dependence on tillage in organic systems.”
Eric Brennan, a USDA Agricultural Research Services organic systems horticulturist in Salinas, and integral partner in the effort, has studied cover crops in the Salinas Valley.
“Cover cropping regularly, every winter if possible, is one of the ‘lowest-hanging fruit' practices that vegetable farmers can use to improve soil quality and nutrient management in their production,” Brennan said.
Mitchell believes it's time for broad adoption of practices to promote soil health.
“Everyone used to talk about ‘barriers to adoption' when it came to cover crops. Now the question will more aptly be, ‘What happened to those folks who didn't change and adopt?'” Mitchell said.
KQED reporter Mark Schapiro discovered a "center of insurrection" at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points, where UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist Jeff Mitchell has been building soil on a research plot for 20 years.
Schapiro's story was part of a series titled "Reckoning in the Central Valley," a collaboration between Bay Nature magazine and KQED Science examining how climate change is exposing the vulnerabilities of California agriculture.
In the Central Valley, climate change is disrupting the predictability that is key to maintaining a profitable industrial agriculture system. Mitchell believes that employing practices that build soil - such as reducing or eliminating tillage and planting cover crops - will help farmers ride the wave of climate change.
It's that cover-cropped field “that is the real disruptor here," Mitchell said.
The soil in test plots where cover crops were grown are loaded with far more organic matter than soil in fields where cover crops were not grown. The organic matter improves water absorption, making the land more resilient to drier conditions. Fields with cover crops also sequester carbon and produce crops that may be more nutritious.
“What you see in Five Points,” said Daphne Miller, a physician who studies the links between the health of the foods we eat and the soil in which they're grown, “is that the plots with the greatest diversity of cover crops had the most diverse microbiome in the soil.”
Rather than using herbicides in caneberry growing tunnels, the UC Integrated Pest Management program suggests planting a cover crop to prevent weeds in anchor rows.
Cover crops in anchor rows can suppress weed growth and help to minimize soil erosion and nutrient and sediment loss when it rains. Densely planted cover crops can out compete weed seedlings germinating from the soil and prevent wind-dispersed seeds from reaching the wet soil surface.
Cover crops are especially helpful when managing weeds that are difficult to control with fumigation because of their hard impermeable seed coats (mallows and filaree), or resistance to herbicides such as glyphosate and paraquat (hairy fleabane and horseweed).
Cover crops can be managed with mowing or herbicides to avoid seed production.
For all the details, see the newly revised weed section in the Caneberries Pest Management Guidelines on the UC IPM web site.
Even on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, where average rainfall is a mere 7 inches per year, farmers can reap the benefits of winter cover crops without the expense of irrigation, University of California research has found. Growing a winter cover crop helps retain soil nitrogen – keeping it from leaching into groundwater – improves water infiltration, reduces runoff, increases soil organic matter and boosts long-term soil fertility.
Moreover, a vigorously growing cover crop can smother winter weeds, reducing or eliminating the need for herbicides or tillage between crops.
“Despite the many and varied benefits of cover cropping that are increasingly seen by farmers in other parts of the country, the vast majority of Central Valley farmers currently do not use them,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis. Mitchell, a cropping systems expert, is based at the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier, Calif.
The costs and benefits of winter cover crops are being examined in an ongoing trial at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points, Calif. Initiated in 2000, the trial is led by Mitchell, William Horwath, a professor in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at UC Davis, and Dan Munk, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Fresno County, a cotton and soils expert.
Mitchell said the West Side trial addresses valley farmers’ primary concern about cover crops – water.
“When water is short, as it has been in many recent years, farmers wonder how inserting an extra crop that doesn’t bring an immediate return on investment makes sense,” Mitchell said. “But our work over the last 12 years has demonstrated that cover cropping ‘on the cheap’ – relying only on rainfall for irrigation – supplies many benefits and doesn’t cost much.”
Rainfall during the November to March winter growth period in Five Points averages 7 inches, slightly less than the 30-year average annual rainfall of 7.6 inches for the site. Winter rainfall has varied considerably during the trial, from a low of 2.9 inches in 2003 to a high of 11 inches in 2006.
From 2000 to 2010, a cover crop mix of triticale, ryegrain and pea was grown at a seed cost of $55 per acre (2012 dollars). In 2011 and 2012, the researchers used a mixture of fava bean and “tillage radish” for the cover crop, at a cost of $50 per acre.
Tillage radish is a large-rooted winter annual being marketed for its ability to improve soil condition. It’s thick, tuberous roots break up the soil surface. When it is killed in the spring and the roots decompose and shrivel, it leaves behind channels that help with aeration and water infiltration.
Over the course of the UC trial, an average of 3,400 pounds of dry biomass per acre was produced by the cover crops each year with rainfall alone. Productivity generally related to the amount of rain, with as little as 65 pounds of dry biomass per acre in 2007, when rainfall was 5.2 inches, and 6,400 pounds in 2005, when 10.1 inches of rain fell.
The timing of rainfall was also important. Rain is needed early to establish the crop and late in the season to sustain its growth when the temperature warms.
Over time, growing cover crops results in a significantly higher amount of carbon in the top foot of soil. Following eight years of cover cropping, soil carbon values in the standard tillage cover crop system, in which the cover crop was treated as a green manure and incorporated into the soil at a depth of 10 inches, was 12.2 tons of carbon per acre. Where cover crops were combined with conservation tillage, the researchers measured 12.8 tons per acre. In areas managed with conservation tillage and no cover crop, 11.7 tons per acre of carbon was in the top foot of soil. Under standard tillage and no cover crops, currently the common practice in the San Joaquin Valley, soil carbon came in at 9.9 tons per acre.
In addition to improving soil quality, farmers are investigating whether storing extra carbon in the soil will make them eligible for selling carbon credits under California Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act.
“Sequestering carbon in farmland could be a means of mitigating global warming from greenhouse gas emissions,” Mitchell said. “We are working with farmers to develop a record of performance so they can document their potential for storing more carbon using conservation tillage and cover crops.”
Experimental field in which conservation tillage with and without cover crops are being compared to standard tillage systems.