Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation
University of California
Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation

Conservation agriculture news

Conservation tillage making strides in California

After 10 years of experimentation, researchers at the University of California’s Westside Research and Extension Center in Five Points, Calif. have worked out a number of the “kinks” in conservation tillage (CT) practices for cotton and tomato rotations.

“Completely new crop production paradigms pose inherent challenges and risk and the adoption of these new systems is not easy,” reports UC Davis research team leader Jeff Mitchell.

The team, composed of Will Horwath, Karen Klonsky, Wes Wallender and Randy Southard out of UCD, Dan Munk and Kurt Hembree out of local Fresno County Cooperative Extension office, and Anil Shrestha from Fresno State, has made steady progress over the years and their research is now shedding light on a number of promising practices for these two stalwart San Joaquin Valley (SJV) crops.

The first few years of the team’s work in CT farming systems weren’t too encouraging.  The standard tillage methods initially were better in terms of yield.  Mitchell and colleagues, however, didn’t become discouraged as they knew that conservation tillage has been used in other parts of the country – mainly in the Midwest and Southeast – with success and yields comparable to those achieved using conventional, intensive tillage.  However, these areas of the U.S. traditionally experienced much soil erosion due to a lack of protective soil cover during their rainy, establishment period for their crops. The cropland in the San Joaquin Valley is much different from that of the Midwest and Southeastern U.S.  It has generally been leveled for surface irrigation and concerns about soil erosion have not been a major driver for conservation tillage practices in the SJV.  In recent years, however, increased fuel prices, labor needs and dust regulations have provided the incentives for renewed interest in conservation tillage.

A variety of “minimum tillage” approaches that put together various tillage operations – such as ripping, disking and ring-rolling – are now being widely used throughout the central SJV, according to Mitchell. These approaches, however, simply rely on combining tillage passes and do not necessarily reduce the overall volume of soil that is disturbed. There have been no cropping systems developed and used in the SJV to evaluate the capability of the more classic forms of CT management, such as no-tillage and strip-tillage to further reduce production costs or to increase soil carbon sequestration over time, as has been reported in other regions where these more severe forms of CT are used.

Additionally, because successful CT systems such as no-till and strip-till have been widely used in other parts of the country for a number of the crops commonly produced in the SJV, the research team reasoned that the principles of conservation tillage should work here as well. Most CT is currently employed in production regions with higher rainfall or with growing-season precipitation. The semi-arid SJV annually receives only about 7 inches of rainfall and thus agriculture relies largely on surface or gravity irrigation. Surface irrigation would likely be more difficult across or through residues that tend to accumulate in CT fields and this has been one of the things studied by the team.

The long-term tillage systems work of this team began in 1999 to evaluate CT tomato and cotton systems with and without winter cover crops. It has evaluated impacts of these practices on yield, production costs and soil carbon. The first four years of cover crops didn’t see any increase in total soil carbon, but rather, a shift in the distribution of the carbon throughout the profile was detected. The amount of carbon in the topsoil (0-6”) increased and the carbon in the subsoil (6”-12”) decreased. However, after eight years of following these four systems, the conservation tillage with cover crop (CTCC) had significantly more organic matter and the standard tillage without a cover crop (STNO) – the type that is most used in the San Joaquin Valley – had the lowest amount.

For the first year, the cover crops were irrigated up, but after that, they relied on winter rainfall for moisture and, as could be predicted, the amount of cover crop biomass produced and surface residue generated covered a greater percent of the area with greater rainfall. The conservation tillage plots had 10 times the ground covered than the standard tillage plots.

Yields for tomatoes after the first two establishment years of the CT systems were almost 10 percent higher than the standard tillage system and the cover crop systems were almost 6 percent than the non-cover crop systems. The tomato yields were comparable to the typical yields (9-year average = 36.8 tons/ac) in Fresno County. Cotton production, however, presented a different story. In the last four years of the continuing conservation tillage and cover crop study, the cotton yields were not significantly different between the standard tillage method and the conservation tillage method, but earlier in the study, difficulties with cotton stand establishment resulted in generally lower cotton yields in the CT systems.

About half the number of tillage passes were used in the CT systems relative to the standard till practices. For tomatoes without a cover crop, tillage passes went from 19 to 11.  For cotton, tillage passes went from 19 for the standard tillage down to 11 using CT.  That’s almost a 50 percent reduction of tillage passes for tomatoes and a 40 percent reduction in cotton.

There are many benefits that may be gained from both conservation tillage and cover cropping and a growing number of Valley farmers are now beginning to develop successful systems using these practices at a commercial scale.  More information on this research and these systems is available at the Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup’s website at

Cover crop growing in cotton and tomato residues.
Cover crop growing in cotton and tomato residues.

Posted on Monday, October 4, 2010 at 9:30 AM

A new production model for the San Joaquin Valley

Combining low-pressure, overhead sprinklers with conservation tillage may become the new ag production model for the San Joaquin Valley.

This combination of practices is quite common in many irrigated regions outside of California but are relatively new here in the Golden State. However, they may soon be much more important for California producers based on information presented at an evening field tour held on June 10 in Five Points.

This event was coordinated by the Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup and brought together farmers, leading conservation tillage (CT) researchers, and overhead irrigation industry representatives for the over 100 participants in attendance.

“Conservation tillage” is a type of crop management system - such as no-till and strip-till - that leaves crop residues on top of the soil when going from one crop to the next. CT is also a variety of the other “minimum tillage” approaches that reduce the overall number of tillage passes by at least 40 percent of standard tillage systems.

UC Davis researchers Karen Klonsky and Will Horwath have been evaluating the performance of CT tomato and cotton rotations at the University’s West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points for over 10 years.  Horwath, a soil scientist, reported that following eight years of CT farming, soil carbon in the top foot of soil increased by about 23 percent relative to the conventional, tillage-intensive system. That very roughly equates to a greater than 40 percent increase in organic matter.

This is a significant finding as it is the first such outcome in California coming from a long-term study. Klonsky, an ag economist at Davis, reported that tomato yields were about 9 percent higher in the CT versus standard tillage systems.

During the last five years of the study, there have been no yield differences between the tillage systems in the cotton portion of the rotation. There were some establishment problems early on in the experiment that pushed overall cotton yields to 90 percent of those of the standard tillage systems.  Fuel use in CT systems was estimated to be 28 percent less than the conventionally-managed systems.

These findings are important and quite timely for San Joaquin Valley (SJV) producers but their significance may even be greater when these practices are added to center pivots or lateral move irrigation systems. With mechanized irrigation, tillage that is typically needed to create and maintain planting beds and furrows that enable surface irrigation are theoretically no longer required. This merging of CT and overhead irrigation technologies was the focus of the second half of the June 10 twilight information event.

Two overhead irrigation studies are currently underway at the West Side Research and Extension Center. One has compared a wheat/corn rotation under overhead irrigation with a conventional, surface irrigation scheme.  UC Davis researcher, Jeff Mitchell, reported using 65 percent less water than furrow irrigation but resulted in similar wheat yields.

UC Davis graduate student Brooks Landers also presented information showing higher application uniformities and less deep percolation losses with the overhead system.  Following a number of presentations by overhead irrigation company representatives, participants visited the farms of John Diener and Scott Schmidt.

These farmers have used overhead irrigation for about five years to irrigate wheat, corn, onions, sugar beets, alfalfa, cotton and tomatoes. These two West Side farmers got started with overhead irrigation in 2005 when they traveled to Washington State and to meet with center pivot farmers and overhead irrigation company experts.

After meeting with and learning from two Washington farmers who were managing the irrigation of upwards of 8,000 acres all by themselves using automated overhead systems, both Diener and Schmidt returned to their farms and quickly began developing their overhead irrigation management skills. They now use several 135-acre pivots on their farms.

Diener pointed out the precision application and automation aspects of overhead irrigation that allow him or his manager to run his systems using cell phone control. Schmidt pointed out the fact that overhead irrigation is different since you tend to be dealing with the top 18 or so inches of soil and thus irrigation timing and frequency must be carefully finessed.

For more information on these emerging SJV farming technologies, visit the Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup’s website at, or call Jeff Mitchell at (559) 303-9689.  To become a member of the workgroup and receive periodic updates, e-mail Mitchell at

Representatives from CISCO AG, Senninger Irrigation Co and Reinke Irrigation Co at the field day.
Representatives from CISCO AG, Senninger Irrigation Co and Reinke Irrigation Co at the field day.

Posted on Friday, September 3, 2010 at 9:23 AM

Overhead irrigation alliance to be formed in California

Discussions have been initiated toward the formation of the California Overhead Irrigation Alliance. The alliance will be a diverse group of farmers, private sector representatives, university and other agency folks interested in developing and extending information on overhead, mechanized irrigation systems here in California. The group will hold a “founders’ meeting” on Friday, Oct. 1, in Five Points.

Because of the obvious connections and possible benefits of merging or coupling overhead mechanized irrigation with conservation tillage crop production approaches, it makes good sense for the Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup to be involved with this emerging initiative.

"It remains to be seen what form a partnership between the workgroup and the alliance might take, but as options become clearer and more focused, I’ll try to pass on additional information on what is being considered so that we might discuss things together," said Jeff Mitchell, the Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup chair.

Several UC scientists are already involved in overhead mechanized irrigation research and extension efforts at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center, but if others are interested in learning more about this overall endeavor or our ongoing work in this arena, please call Mitchell at (559) 303-9689.

Overhead irrigation can be used in conjunction with conservation tillage.
Overhead irrigation can be used in conjunction with conservation tillage.

Posted on Thursday, September 2, 2010 at 8:53 AM

Earthworms signal success on innovative tomato farm

If the return of earthworms to farm fields is an indication of success, then Sano Farms is on the right track.

“I haven’t seen earthworms in these fields in years,” said Firebaugh farmer Alan Sano. Sano and his partner, Jesse Sanchez, combine subsurface drip irrigation, winter cover crops and strip tillage to consistently produce a high-yielding crop of processing tomatoes.

In addition to boosting yield, the system they developed for the 4,000-acre farm is cheaper, increases soil organic matter and improves the tilth of their silty clay soil.

The farmers took several trips to the Midwest and consulted with UC Davis Cooperative Extension specialist Jeff Mitchell to learn the improved management techniques they applied on the farm.

After switching from furrow irrigation to drip, Sano and Sanchez began experimenting with cover crops.

"It wasn’t always an easy transition into cover crops," Mitchell said. "It did take some time to learn the best way to manage them."

As the benefits of years of cover cropping accumulated, they saw that they didn’t need to till the entire field to get good soil-seed contact; they only needed to till a strip of soil a few inches wide.

Recently, they shared their innovative farming system with other growers at an open house event sponsored by California's Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup.

Farmers interested in adopting conservation tillage techniques may contact Mitchell for more information at

Posted on Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 2:12 PM

Aussie no-tillers visit Valley farmers

Leading San Joaquin Valley conservation tillage farmers Scott Schmidt of Five Points and Dino Giacomazzi of Hanford recently hosted a group of 38 no-till farmers from Western and South Australia. The visit was part of a five-week excursion the Australians were conducting through conservation agriculture regions of the US and Canada.

The Valley tour was jointly coordinated by California’s Conservation Tillage Workgroup, a diverse group of over 1,500 farmer, private sector, public agency and University members, and Crabtree Ag Consulting’s “No-till” Bill Crabtree of Beckenham, Western Australia. Crabtree, a renowned and award-winning no-till pioneer and promoter whose efforts have contributed substantially to the adoption of no-till farming on over 90 percent of the wheat acreage in Western Australia, and California CT workgroup chair Jeff Mitchell of UC Davis met in 2006 at an international conference on no-till adoption in New South Wales, Australia. Crabtree made a presentation at one of the California workgroup’s farmer meetings in 2007 in Five Points. The two no-till researchers have remained in contact since 2006 and worked together in organizing this summer’s conservation farming SJV visits.

This year’s Australian tour group made a stop in the San Joaquin Valley to learn about the progress farmers and researchers have recently made with conservation tillage cropping systems. The group was on their way from visits in Southern California to more traditional no-till regions in the Dakotas and Canada.

Their first farm visit was with Scott Schmidt, manager of Farming ‘D’ in Five Points. The diverse crop mix produced by this farm - which includes processing and fresh market tomatoes, wheat, cotton, onions, garlic, alfalfa and lettuce - contrasted sharply with the monoculture wheat fields common throughout Western and South Australia where average annual rainfall ranges from 200 to 400 mm (8 to 16 inches) and occurs primarily during the winter (similar to the SJV).

Within the diverse crop rotations that are pursued at Farming ‘D,’ Schmidt has developed a number of minimum tillage techniques and implements. He now contemplates converting segments of these rotations to even more ambitious conservation tillage management in the future. Schmidt is also a local pioneer in the use of overhead, mechanized center pivot irrigation.

The flexibility afforded by irrigating with center pivots makes the conversion to more advanced CT systems more feasible. The tillage typically required to establish beds and furrows for surface irrigation may no longer be needed under center pivot irrigation.

Following their visit with Schmidt, the Aussie no-tillers crossed the Valley and were hosted by Dino Giacomazzi and three generations of his family at their dairy in Hanford. Over the past five years, Giacomazzi has developed and refined strip-tillage corn and no-till winter wheat and triticale planting techniques. He proudly and methodically walked his visitors through his entire silage production process.

While the production contexts and details vary widely between Western and South Australia and the San Joaquin Valley, in many ways the fundamental drive toward developing conservation tillage systems that farmers in both regions exemplify are universal. Cutting production costs by reducing tillage passes results first in cheaper production and, as long as yields can be maintained or improved, more profitable production systems.

“What we do as farmers must, in the first place, be economical,” SJV CT farmer Giacomazzi pointed out. “The environmental benefits are great, but our production systems have to be first and foremost economical.”

For Giacomazzi, those environmental benefits have included fewer emissions into the air, more residue on the soil surface, and more organic matter in the soil. For the Australian no-tillers, it has meant combatting soil erosion which was causing lower yields and higher production costs. It had become nothing short of a national plague 20 ago in Western Australia’s light textured soils that are very susceptible to wind erosion.

More information on local conservation tillage is available at the CT Workgroup’s website: and in the book by No-till Bill Crabtree, Search for Sustainability with No-till Bill in dryland agriculture.

Giacomazzi (with back to camera) speaks to Australian visitors.
Giacomazzi (with back to camera) speaks to Australian visitors.

Posted on Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 12:42 PM

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