Conservation agriculture news
"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 http://casi.ucanr.edu/.
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.”
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 Soilguys.com. “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.”
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org (559) 303-9689.
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.
“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.”
For the past 20 years, I have taken Elkhorn Avenue just about every day from my home in Kingsburg out west to the small town of Five Points where I work. My travels along this 30-mile rural route have been one of life’s little joys as I have come to deeply respect the people I have met and the things I’ve seen along the way. In many ways, Elkhorn Avenue represents the very best of our Valley and it provides a lot that we might all be proud of.
Our Valley’s crop diversity is also apparent along this transition. On a recent drive this spring, I counted over 30 different crops being produced. From permanent trees and vines including almonds to walnuts, to diverse annual crops ranging from eggplant to wheat, a rich array of cropping can be seen along Elkhorn year round.
Different innovative systems are now used to irrigate these crops. Flood and furrow irrigation systems have been replaced in vineyards by drip and in orchards by micro-sprinkler systems and recently in annual crop fields by highly precise and uniform center pivot systems that can be seen at the dairy farm of John and Joann Tachara just east of Burrel. Their silage fields are now irrigated and fertigated to precisely match crop needs.
Further west and south of the small West Side community of Five Points is Red Rock Ranch, owned and managed by John Diener. In 2011, John received the Leopold Award for the many conservation techniques he uses to manage salty drainage water, achieve on-farm energy self-sufficiency by biofuel production and processing, and couple conservation tillage with center pivot irrigation. Another example of visionary and sustainable farming.
You may also notice smaller scale innovations along Elkhorn Avenue. A group of boys just west of Hwy 43 created their own soccer field complete with metal goal posts. They do all the maintenance for this field themselves and it has become a well used local resource. I also remember seeing two young girls having the times of their lives in their 50-gallon plastic drum ‘pool’ that they had filled with a garden hose. The fun they were having that day with this makeshift little pool brings a smile to my face even today.
The term “innovation” is sometimes overused, but from what I’ve seen through my travels along Elkhorn Avenue, it sure seems to apply to this place. “Innovation” not only means creating something new; it’s also about bringing something that exists elsewhere to a new place - and that is definitely happening here
Looking forward, the future of the agricultural systems that are evolving along Elkhorn Avenue ought to be quite bright. That is, of course, if the region’s other necessary resource, - water, - is made more reliable and available. Creative and visionary water policies and expanded development of efficient water capture, storage, and delivery infrastructure are going to be needed for this innovation to continue. The future of Elkhorn Avenue’s dynamic innovation thus rests with all of us. May we act wisely.