Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation
University of California
Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation

Conservation agriculture news

CASI participation in national conferences in 2014

Members of Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation center participated in four national conferences in January and February, 2014. Following are summaries of the events and take-home messages most relevant to improving California farming systems.

Jesse Sanchez
2014 Empire State Producers Expo
Syracuse, N.Y.
Jan. 22, 2014

CASI member Jesse Sanchez of Sano Farms in Firebaugh, Calif., interacted with about 100 vegetable farmers in New York as part of the 2014 Empire State Producers Expo in Syracuse. Jesse was invited to travel to this event, but due to the snow storm that hit the region the day before the conference, he was obliged to conduct his discussion on reduced tillage tomatoes and cover crops in California via SKYPE. According to Carol McNeil, the Cornell University organizer of the event, Jesse's involvement in this session was much appreciated by the New York audience. Congratulations to Jesse Sanchez on this very nice honor!

18th Annual Winter Conference of No-till on the Plains and 2014 AIM (Agriculture's Innovative Minds) Symposium
Back to the Basics – Managing Water and Nutrients
Salina, Kan.
Jan. 28-30, 2014

CASI chair Jeff Mitchell participated in the 18th Annual Winter Conference of No-till on the Plains and 2014 AIM (Agriculture's Innovative Minds) Symposium, which brought together more than 1,400 farmers from states stretching from Colorado in the West to Ohio in the East. No-till on the Plains, Inc. is a 501.c3 non-profit educational organization that works to educate farmers and others on the benefits of continuous no-till farming and other practices that lead to profitable and regenerative farming operations. The association prides itself as a top-notch farmer-to-farmer exchange for practical, reliable information. The learning opportunities afforded by the conference were unparalleled in their effectiveness and quality. Innovative no-till farmers, researchers and leaders from around the U.S. and Canada were on the program. CASI received several quite gracious offers from participating farmers. I heartily encourage CASI members to consider taking part in the annual winter conferences of No-till on the Plains in coming years. For more information, see the conference website at

18th annual winter conference of No-Till on the Plains in Salina, Kan.

High Residue Farming Systems in the Irrigated West Conference
Salt Lake City, Utah
February 6-7, 2014

CASI members Michael Crowell, a dairy farmer in Turlock; Dennis Chessman, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Services state agronomist for California; and Jeff Mitchell of UC Davis, were invited to participate in a meeting in early February in Salt Lake City, Utah, on high-residue farming systems. The event included groups of farmers, NRCS conservationists and university representatives from Washington, Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico and California. There was a lively exchange of information on high-residue farming activities used throughout the irrigated western states. Presentations were made by farmers, NRCS and university teams for each state. Joint planning discussions on how to do more to increase education about innovative farming systems were also held. In addition, Marilyn Lockhart of Montana State University gave a seminar on adult learning strategies. Our three CASI representatives at this event will now be working to set up a network of farm demonstration evaluations on high-residue farming systems in California.

National Cover Crops and Soil Health Conference
Omaha, Neb.
February 18-19, 2014

More than 300 farmers, agri-business representatives, USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Services staff, university and government agency people came together in Omaha, Neb., and about 600 connected online to plan how the group can work together to increase cover crop use around the nation from about 2 million acres today to 20 million or more by 2020. The group acknowledged that the many obstacles in the way of reaching the goal – less land available for production, increasingly variable weather, and the need to produce more crops – will require wide adoption new farming practices. Implementation of better soil management will be crucial. Cover cropping is the next most important means to achieving improved, more efficient, biologically active soils. During the conference, a number of very innovative cover crop systems and farmers from around the country were showcased. By any measure, little exists in California's Central Valley today that approaches the level of soil care that these cover crop farming champions are achieving. The valley's soils are not immune to soil degradation and could be improved by paying more attention to the core principles of soil health being promoted by the USDA-NRCS.

The four fundamental principles of this initiative are:

  1. Minimizing soil disturbance
  2. Maximizing the diversity of plants in the rotation and using cover crops
  3. Keeping living roots in the soil as much as possible
  4. Keeping the soil covered with plants and plant residues at all times

These principles provide a platform for achieving more resilient, more efficient and biologically active soils. While conference participants generally agreed that more research is needed, they also agreed that we now have sufficient information and experience to move forward with practices that improve soil health and resiliency. As Pennsylvania cover crop and no-till farmer Steve Groff put it in his concluding comments at the end of the conference, “It is about economics, but it is more than economics. It is the right thing to do.” That encouragement to move forward in working to improve the health of our soils was a clear, inspiring mandate that came out of the conference. But so was the sober realization that without changing behaviors and having soil health principles more widely adopted, soil improvement will not be achieved. Thus, several sessions during the second day of discussions were dedicated to developing regional action plans for how best to address the challenges of adoption.

Compared to the number of shining examples of the cover crop and soil health farmer champions who were given opportunities to share their innovations at the conference, it is only fair and accurate to say that California has far to go in increasing momentum in soil health. The challenge will be to develop suitable adaptations of the basic principles for California's diverse production environments.

Additional information about the conference is available at the conference website:


Posted on Monday, March 17, 2014 at 9:15 AM

Additional 'ecosystem services' can be found on no-till tomato and cotton farms

No-till cover crop seeding into cotton and tomato residues.
UC research has shown that conservation agriculture practices – such as cover cropping and no tillage – are generating additional "ecosystem services" in West Side cotton and tomato production.

"Attributing ecosystem services to farming is an emerging trend in assessing the benefits of agricultural operations," said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis. "Resource management systems on today’s farms can provide significant benefits to air, water, and soil resources and furnish wildlife habitat. We've now determined that farmers who use cover crops and no-till practices are furnishing still more ecosystem services."

Since 1999, a team of UC researchers, local farmers, Natural Resource Conservation Service conservationists and private sector partners have compared plots at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center managed with cover crops and no tillage to adjoining plots managed with traditional tillage approaches.

"We have seen striking changes in soil properties after sustained cover cropping and no-till management," Mitchell said.

With eight inches of supplemental irrigation over the 14-year period, cover crops produced more than 19 tons of organic matter or about 7 tons of carbon per acre. This biomass resulted in a 23 percent increase in soil carbon in the cover cropped system that was ‘green manured,’ or incorporated back into the soil with tillage, and a 74 percent increase in soil carbon in the no-till cover crop system.

The research team also reported similar increases in total soil nitrogen, with 19 percent more in the green manured cover crop and 59 percent more in the no-till cover cropped system. The value of these changes relates not only to improving favorable soil attributes – such as water holding capacity, reduced runoff and more available nitrogen – but also to the fact that these soils are now serving as greater 'sinks' for carbon and nitrogen.

"That means there is reduced likelihood these elements will enter the atmosphere as greenhouse gases or be leached to groundwater," Mitchell said.

Mitchell said the team also measured increased levels of soil aggregation, which is related to higher water infiltration and greater soil water storage capacity when cover crops and no-tillage are used.

This long-term research continues at the West Side Research and Extension Center to further determine tradeoffs associated with cover cropping and no-tillage practices in terms of water use, input costs and ecosystem service benefits. Dan Munk, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Fresno County and project partner, points out that this long-term 'systems' work is important because it allows the opportunity to fully assess both the overall costs and benefits of alternative practices.

More information may be found at the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation website at



Posted on Thursday, January 16, 2014 at 9:59 AM

Soil health experts to speak to California farmers Dec. 10 and 11

'Biotic farming' considers all living things, not just the crop being grown.
Update: View a video of the two-hour program online.

Innovative soil enhancement practices are being researched and implemented around the world, but haven’t caught on yet in most of California. Free workshops at UC Davis and Five Points will feature new ways of managing soil that promise long-term sustainability, better crop quality and reduced use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

The Davis workshop is at 11 a.m. Dec. 10 in the Plant and Environmental Sciences Building 3001; the Five Points workshop is at 11 a.m. Dec. 11 at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center, 17353 W. Oakland Ave., Five Points.

The UC Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation program (CASI) has invited nationally known proponents of soil health to share their experiences and knowledge about soil-supporting practices. Brendon Rockey of Rockey Farms in Center, Colo., will be talking about practices for which he has coined the term “biotic farming systems.”

Brendon Rockey
“My presentation will revolve around the idea of biotic farming, which to me means looking at all living things, not just the crop being grown,” Rockey said. “Once you recognize the biotic system, you then have two paths from which to choose, antibiotic or probiotic.”

Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis, said Rockey is not an “organic” farmer, but an “extremely innovative” farmer. Rockey and his uncle grow 30 varieties of potatoes on 250 acres in the San Luis Valley of Colorado

“He’s somebody who is questioning and challenging the way things have always been done,” Mitchell said. “Rather than relying on heavy hammers like herbicides, fungicides, tillage and other inputs to solve problems, Rockey is helping people realize that there might be a more integrated, biological way to address problems and reduce inputs.”

For example, Rockey advocates the use of multi-species green manure, either as a winter cover crop or, in the case of his own farm, right alongside the crop during the growing season.

“We know that … diverse plant populations bring life to the soil,” Rockey shares on his website “They create an ideal environment for a variety of microbial populations, increase water uptake and retention, fix nitrogen and cycle nutrients and attract predatory insects to the field.”

Jay Furher
Rockey will be joined by Jay Fuhrer, district conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services, Bismark, N.D., who has addressed soil health in speaking engagements around the U.S., in Canada, France and Russia.

“The principles of building healthy soils are the same everywhere — you have to stop tilling the soil and switch from a monoculture crop to a diversity of crops and rotations,” Fuhrer said. “But the path to soil health is different on each farm. Cover crop and cash crop selections and sequences are chosen to fit the farmer’s resource concerns and priorities, and the means available at that farm.”

For more information, contact Jeff Mitchell at jpmitchell@ucdavis.eduor (559) 303-9689.

Posted on Tuesday, November 26, 2013 at 11:16 AM

Mounting pressures on agriculture drive interest in conservation

A new center pivot irrigation system at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center was introduced to participants in the twilight field day and farm tour in September.
Diminishing water supplies, farm labor shortages, environmental impacts and shrinking agricultural profits are prompting more California farmers to seriously consider adopting conservation practices in their annual row crop production systems.

Extensive research by UC scientists and innovative farmers has shown that making the changes can be challenging at first, but in time results in more efficient, environmentally sound and profitable food production systems.

“There’s a sense of inevitability now that these systems will be more widely adopted in California annual cropping systems,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis.

View a two-minute
video snapshot of the
field day and farm tour
at the end of this post.

The growing interest was demonstrated at a UC field day and farm tour in September in which more than 200 participants visited three farms already successfully implementing conservation practices and three sites at the field station where research on conservation farming practices is underway.

At Five Points Ranch, field day participants stood on an alfalfa field and inched along with an operating center pivot system. Farmer Armando Galvan has added “boom backs” behind the wheels that roll the system through the field. The boom backs make sure the wheel tracks stay dry until the wheels have passed, which prevents wheels from carving deep trenches in wet soil.  

At the Morning Star dairy farm, John and JoAnne Tacherra irrigate rolling acres of forage with a center pivot irrigation system and have put the employees who used to undertake the punishing task of moving sprinkler sets to work inside the dairy barn. The center pivot system is controlled with the touch of a button. The combination of advanced nozzle packages and software that manages the pivot speed allow the Tacherras to distribute precise quantities of water and dispense the water with the ideal droplet size for each stage of the crop’s development. The couple now plans to experiment with the application of dairy lagoon water through the center pivot system.

At Farming “D” Ranch in Five Points, logistics manager Scott Schmidt experienced some problems with overhead irrigation this spring. Water was applied on cotton over triangular beds, slipped into the furrows and left seeds dry. Water infiltration was also inhibited when the wetted surface of the field dried into a crust and subsequent irrigation washed off. The crop had to be replanted.

“These sorts of problems can be solved,” Mitchell said. “Carefully designed nozzle packages and soil quality development practices will promote water infiltration.”

No-till farming and the use of cover crops have been shown at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center to enhance soil quality. When the tour returned to the center’s research plots, they viewed a 12-year study where plots have been maintained to compare the long-term effects of standard tillage techniques with no-till or minimum tillage systems, and both tillage methods combined with off-season cover crops.

The soil differences are dramatic.

Using clear canisters for a demonstration, Natural Resources Conservation Service soil conservationist Genett Carstensen poured a cup of water onto soil collected from a tilled plot and onto soil from a no-till plot managed with cover crops. The standard till soil repelled the liquid, which pooled at the top of the container; the no-till soil readily absorbed the water.

“This is what soil quality is,” Carstensen said.

She further demonstrated the soil quality differences by placing dirt clods from the two types of plots in canisters of water. The no-till clod maintained its composure; the clod from the tilled plot began dissolving immediately.

“The no-till clod has glued itself together with dead matter and dead microbes,” she said. “The standard till soil is going to erode and water is going to carry it off.”

At another research field, Steven Kaffka, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis, is leading a study of what he calls “energy beets,” formerly known as sugar beets. The trial compares beet production under overhead irrigation and buried drip irrigation. Kaffka believes energy beets will be another competitive crop for California farmers because they can be used to produce ethanol, which will allow farmers to help the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve climate change goals.

The field day also included a glimpse of future research at the northeast corner of the West Side REC where industry donors have teamed up with UC to create a facility for state-of-the-art overhead irrigation study. Reinke Inc. donated a center pivot system, Senninger Irrigation donated nozzles, and Rain for Rent created an infrastructure that gets water and power to the research plot.

Replicated plots will be pie shaped and different treatments can be applied to each segment with the use of multiple sets of drop hoses. Studies will begin immediately to research deficit irrigation of alfalfa, corn, sorghum and cotton.

“Because of the water situation in California, deficit irrigation is going to be something we will need to know a whole lot more about, for better or for worse,” said Bob Hutmacher, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciecnes at UC Davis and director of the West Side Research and Extension Center.

View a two-minute video snapshot of the field day and farm tour:

Posted on Monday, September 23, 2013 at 2:41 PM

Annual sustainable agriculture event expanded to include farm tours

University of Nebraska's Suat Irmak, facing camera, explains how a high-technology weather station in Nebraska continuously monitors crop evapotraspiration and crop coefficients during the growing season. Irmak presents the keynote address to California farmers Sept. 12.
Sustainable agricultural systems involving precision irrigation and conservation tillage will be featured at the University of California Cooperative Extension’s annual “Twilight Field Day” and a new farm tour, together running from 1 to 8 p.m. Sept. 12.

“We want to introduce more farmers to these proven technologies,” said Jeff Mitchell, UCCE specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis and field day coordinator. “We’ve done research here, and there’s a lot of work from other areas showing that these systems work and they save water, reduce dust, store carbon in the soil and save farmers money.”

This year, the event has been expanded to include an afternoon bus tour to three San Joaquin Valley farms where conservation agriculture systems are already being successfully implemented. Registrants will gather at 1 p.m. at the UC Westside Research and Extension Center, 17353 West Oakland Ave., Five Points, to load the buses.

The farm tour visits:

  • Johnny and Joann Tacharra Dairy in Burrel. The Tacharras will explain their plans to apply dairy waste water through an overhead irrigation system to grow forage crops.

  • Armando Galvan of Five Points Ranch. Galvan will show how he refined his irrigation system to apply water to vegetable and row crops. Galvan installs special nozzles and boom configurations on his overhead irrigation drop lines that are designed to improve water infiltration and avoid ponding and crusting on the soil surface.

  • Scott Schmidt of Farming ‘D’ Ranch in Five Points. Schmidt will discuss the new management strategies that must be applied to successfully implement new agricultural systems.

Following the tour, the participants reconvene at 4 p.m. at the UC Westside REC for a workshop on the economic and environmental benefits of conservation agriculture systems. The event continues with a free barbecue dinner, entertainment by the Wheelhouse Country Band and a keynote address by Suat Irmak, director of the Nebraska Water Center and professor of biological systems engineering. The Water Center was established at the University of Nebraska by congressional mandate in 1964. Nebraska farms currently lead the nation in adopting precision irrigation systems.

Following Irmak’s presentation and discussion, Mitchell will name the 2013 Conservation Tillage Farmer Innovator of the Year award winner.

The expanded event coincides with a concerted effort by the Conservation Agricultural Systems Innovation (CASI) Center to grow the conservation agriculture movement in California. CASI is a diverse group of UC researchers, farmers, public and private industry and environmental groups formed to develop and exchange information on sustainable agricultural systems for California row crops.

“In each century, there are just a handful of times when agriculture can transform itself in revolutionary ways,” Mitchell said. “There is growing evidence that today presents one of those rare chances for agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley to reinvent itself.”

The event is free but pre-registration is requested to help with planning for the bus tour and dinner. Please R.S.V.P. by email to Diana Nix at or by completing the online survey.

Posted on Wednesday, August 14, 2013 at 1:50 PM

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