Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation
University of California
Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation

Conservation agriculture news

CT research shared at New Horizons conferences

By Jeff Mitchell

Whether it’s called “high residue farming” or “conservation agriculture,”  there’s very little of it currently done in California. For decades, the dominant production paradigm throughout California has been just the opposite - intense tillage, clean cultivation and residue-free fields.

There is, however, growing interest in these sorts of crop production alternatives as evidenced by the lively and engaging discussions that took place as part of the recent three-day conference series, "New horizons for conservation cropping in California," March 9, 10 and 11 in Davis, Tulare and Five Points, respectively. The events brought three leaders in the development of high residue conservation tillage systems under irrigated conditions to California’s Central Valley to share their experiences and to propose possible applications of these cropping approaches for California farmers.

Mike Petersen, precision tillage agronomist with Orthman Mfg. and former USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Area soil conservationist for the 18 northeastern counties of Colorado, presented an extensive research base that he has helped develop demonstrating advantages of precise fertilizer placement at two depths below the seed, leading not only to increased early season root growth, but also grain yield for strip-till corn versus conventionally tilled corn.

By only tilling in the areas of the field where seed is sown, typically about 30 percent or less of the total soil area, less than about two gallons of diesel fuel are used, little or no soil erosion occurs, and yield increases averaging 11 to 30 bushels per acre have been seed over an eight-year field comparison.  Precision tillage and fertilizer placement that are readily afforded by strip-tillage planting systems would thus have considerable and multiple advantages that may have clear relevance for California producers.

Since 2004, Andy McGuire, educator with Washington State University based in Moses Lake, Wash., has been working with Central Washington farmers to develop successful high residue systems for a variety of the region’s diverse irrigated crops.  He has found that there tends to be typically no single factor motivating farmers to adopt high residue production techniques, but rather a suite of reasons that often combine to influence crop management decisions.

Compared to conventional systems, high residue farming systems involve less overall tillage, diesel fuel use and labor, opportunities for double-cropping, and more free time, as well as reduced soil water evaporation.  Essentially, all of the quite diverse crop production in this region of Washington relies on overhead center pivot irrigation, which McGuire pointed out is particularly well suited for high residue farming because furrows and beds do not need to be prepared to move water across a field as is done with surface irrigation.

High residue cropping opportunities that Washington farmers are now using that may have relevance for California include edible dry beans strip-till planted into alfalfa, strip-till seeded onions into burned down wheat cover crop residue for wind protection, and even potato production systems that reduce wind erosion by preserving surface residues of prior crops.

The progress and accomplishments of Dwayne Beck, the final presenter at the “New Horizons for Conservation Cropping in California” conferences, and the farmers in central South Dakota he has been working with since the 1980s are in many fundamental ways nothing short of phenomenal and transformative, and provided considerable “food for thought” for the California farmers, researchers, and consultants who participated in each of the three conference sessions.

Beck is the South Dakota State University manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm, a farmer-owned research facility just outside the state’s capital of Pierre that has been no-till farmed since 1990. The no-till, high residue systems developed by Beck and his farmer colleagues have resulted in reduced soil water evaporation, far greater cropping diversification and intensification, considerably lower pesticide inputs, and increased net farm income throughout the region by over a billion dollars since the early 1990s.

Tillage, Beck pointed out, reduces the ability to manage the overall crop production system and should be replaced by other cultural practices including surface residue conservation, rotation, sanitation and competition. The benefits of no-till high residue systems will eventually have relevance for California as well, Beck suggested, and farmers here should also be able to “take the E out of ET” as their counterparts in South Dakota have done, once they “take the T out of ‘can’t.’”

Classroom presentation.
Classroom presentation.

Posted on Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 12:15 PM

Is there organized 'opposition' to conservation tillage?

A student at UC Irvine, Saumya Bhardwaj, who is working on a research project on "how to prevent soil damage from monoculture," sent a query to the Conservation Tillage workgroup about policies or interest groups standing in the way of CT implementation.

"Upon doing my research, I couldn't find any group arguing against it so I just need advice on it," Bhardwaj wrote.

"Your question is actually a bit complicated," workgroup chair Jeff Mitchell responded.

"While there is certainly no organized opposition to the broader use or adoption of conservation tillage systems and practices, there are and have been many of what we might call 'barriers.' This is a very interesting area of inquiry and I can well understand your wondering about it.

"For a number of reasons -- tradition, unfamiliarity, fear of risks, uncertainty, lack of information, unwillingness or not seeing any need to change what has been done successfully in the past, lack of 'know how' about options, and many other things -- far wider adoption of these sorts of systems is only now beginning to be taken on.  Increasingly, however, more folks are becoming interested in the potential.  And, as evidenced by the responses we've received from our events last week, there WILL be more up take in the future."

Posted on Monday, March 14, 2011 at 8:15 AM

California farmer Michael Crowell details his no-till experience

National No-till Farmer magazine has published an article by a member of the UC Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup, Michael Crowell.

The Crowell family has been in the dairy business in Turlock for more than 100 years. Currently, Crowell's son Adam manages Bar-Vee Dairy and milks about 700 cows. The family raises their own heifers, so in all the herd is about 1,400 head.

One way the Crowells have dealt with dairy industry volatility is growing as much of their own forage as possible. In his article, Crowell said no-till farming has allowed the family to produce three high-quality forage crops per year.

Crowell began no-till farming six years ago.

"Once I started no-tilling I’ve never missed a single National No-Tillage Conference, I read magazines and get hands-on advice from my University of California-Davis extension contact, Jeff Mitchell," Crowell wrote.

Posted on Friday, February 25, 2011 at 2:26 PM

New Horizons for Conservation Cropping in California Conferences March 9, 10 and 11

California’s Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup will present educational tours and programs at three locations in California March 9-11 to convey information on innovative conservation tillage crop production systems that are being developed in irrigated regions of South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado and Washington.

In addition to sharing information about the conservation cropping systems in these states, the speakers will discuss how the principles and practices can be implemented on California farms.

The first conference will be held March 9 at the UC Davis Western Center for Agricultural Equipment. The second meeting convenes on March 10 at the SCE Ag-TAC facility in Tulare and continues in the afternoon with tours of three Central Valley farms. The final session is March 11 at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points. The presentations at the three locations will be the same. There is no registration fee and no pre-registration necessary.

The three featured speakers, all national leaders in the practice of conservation tillage, are:

  • Dwayne Beck, manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Pierre, South Dakota. Beck has been inducted into South Dakota’s Hall of Fame for introducing cost-saving conservation tillage practices to the region’s agricultural industry when, in the early 1990s, farms were closing due to a lack of economic viability.
  • Mike Peterson, retired USDA NRCS Conservationist and currently the California precision tillage specialist for Orthman Mfg.  Throughout his career, Peterson has researched and developed information on strip-till approaches.
  • Andy McGuire, cropping systems advisor with Washington State University in Moses Lake, Washington.  McGuire has been working to evaluate and develop high-residue cropping systems for the irrigated crops of the Central Washington region.

“The main reason we invited these out-of-state experts is to learn how the conservation tillage systems they have developed relate to California,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Davis Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist and coordinator of the conference. “All of them come from areas where farmers practice irrigated agriculture. We are planning to very thoroughly and thoughtfully consider with them, through a series of dialogues and discussion, the relevance and application of their work on farms in California.”

Conservation agriculture systems reduce overall tillage or soil disturbance, maintain surface residues, seek make production systems more efficient, and reduce costs.  Speakers will address the integrated management of the conservation production systems.

Conference details:

March 9, 12 noon to 4 p.m.: UC Davis Western Center for Agricultural Equipment, off Hutchison on Hills Drive, just west of 113.

March 10, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.: Southern California Edison AgTAC, 4175 S. Laspina St., Tulare, Calif.

March 11, 9 a.m. to 12 noon: UC Westside Research and Extension Center, 17252 W. Oakland Ave., Five Points, Calif.

For additional information on these conferences see the Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup website or contact Mitchell at, (559) 646-6565.

Posted on Monday, January 31, 2011 at 8:21 AM

CT and Cropping Systems Workgroup to be at M-52 at this year’s World Ag Expo

California’s Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup will once again maintain a site at the 2011 World Ag Expo coming up February 8-10 in Tulare. The workgroup booth will be at site M-52, which is about 30 yards due south of the main North Gate 6 entrance.

This year, we will be providing a series of live presentations on various aspects of conservation agriculture through much of each day in addition to our other information offerings.

Presentations include:

  • Local workgroup farmer members Jesse Sanchez, Tom Barcellos, Dino Giacomazzi, and Scott Schmidt talking about their CT and irrigation systems
  • NRCS conservationists providing information on available USDA programs that support conservation agriculture systems and practices
  • UCCE advisor Dan Munk sharing information about CT cotton
  • UCCE advisor advisor Gene Miyao talking about cover crops in tomato systems
  • UC Davis soil science professor Will Horwath talking about soil carbon and GHG’s
  • Ladi Asgill and Ron Harben discussing conservation agricultural systems related to production and business models
  • Jerry Rossiter discussing overhead, mechanized irrigation systems.

The presentations will start at 10 a.m. each day and cycle through the day at the M-52 Workgroup tent.

For more information, contact Jeff Mitchell at (559) 303-9689 or

Posted on Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 10:39 AM

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