Posts Tagged: Jeff Mitchell
Soil Health Institute (SHI) initiative, visited the UC West Side Research and Extension Center in March to take soil samples from research plots managed for 20 years with soil building practices.
The West Side research plots are one of 120 locations in Canada, the United States and Mexico where the SHI scientists are collecting data to evaluate soil health indicators at a continental scale.
The initiative will identify acceptable soil health measurements and standards, as well as launch a comprehensive evaluation program that relates soil health to productivity, economic and environmental outcomes. Cappellazzi is project scientist for the Western U.S. and coordinates the soil health team's pastures and rangeland research.
“Our project at West Side started in 1999 and is a unique research resource in California because of its dedication to reduced soil disturbance and soil biodiversity in food production systems,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist and leader of UC's Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation.
Since it was established, the research plots have been managed in an annual rotation of cotton, processing tomatoes and more recently sorghum, garbanzo beans and melons, under four different treatments: no-tilled plus cover crops, no-tilled with no cover crops, conventionally tilled with cover crops and conventionally tilled without cover crops.
“There are few long-term study sites in California where this combination of core principles that underlie soil health have been applied for a long time frame like we have here at the West Side REC,” Mitchell said. “These principles include reducing disturbance of the soil, maintaining cover over the soil through the use of residues and cover crops, and accentuating diversity in crops and soil biology.”
“Our research project at the West Side REC has enabled scientists to reach many conclusions about soil health in the past. But this very exhaustive sampling by the Soil Health Institute is perhaps the most comprehensive battery of tests that have ever been performed on any study site in the San Joaquin Valley to date,” Mitchell said.
The research initiative is funded with a $9.4 million grant to the Soil Health Institute, the Soil Health Partnership and the Nature Conservancy to improve soil health and support positive economic and environmental outcomes for American farmers and ranchers.
The goal of this project is to support research and education that accelerates adoption and benefits of soil health management systems nationally. Farming practices that improve soil health can increase profitability while protecting natural resources like air and water for communities.
For more information about the sample collection process at the West Side REC, view a 14-minute video at https://youtu.be/WSNg6rJdvvE
UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist Jeff Mitchell is issuing a standing invitation to the public to visit the site of an ongoing conservation agriculture research project and see for themselves the results of long-term soil-building practices.
“Every Friday morning from 9 o'clock till noon, beginning in February and going through June, I invite folks to come to the project site to see up close and personal just what soil health means,” Mitchell said.
The research site is at the University of California's West Side Research and Extension Center, 17353 W. Oakland Ave., in Five Points.
“I promise to be out there every Friday morning from Feb. 15 through June 26,” Mitchell said.
The project, funded by the National Research Initiative, compares plots that have been managed for more than 20 years in an annual rotation of cotton, processing tomatoes and more recently sorghum, garbanzos and melons, under four different treatments: no-tilled plus cover crops, no-tilled with no cover crops, conventionally tilled with cover crops and conventionally tilled without cover crops.
“What we've got at this site is a very long-term example of exactly what implementation of a small set of soil care, or soil health, principles really means for soil function and management,” he said.
Mitchell says that the study site in Five Points is a valuable resource for the people of California because of its dedicated adherence to principles that are widely touted to improve production efficiencies, reduce dust emissions, sequester carbon and reduce inputs over time.
“I recently heard about the value of publicly showcasing long-term sites such as the one we've got in Five Points. It's being done in several other places, including the Dakotas and in Europe,” Mitchell said. “It just seems to make sense to open up our field more widely to folks who might be interested in seeing the remarkable changes we've seen and monitored for a long time.”
According to Mitchell, the NRI Project field is already “the most visited research field in the state,” but with this new invitation, he is hoping to have a still broader impact. “We've got a simply amazing resource here and I want folks to see it,” he said.
The study has been selected as one of the monitoring sites of the North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements that has been initiated by the Soil Health Institute of Morrisville, N.C. More than 20 peer-reviewed scientific articles have been published based on work done in this study field.
Organic farmer Phil Foster has developed a creative way to nurture the soil on his 200-acre farm near Hollister. He plants cover crops in a single line at the top of the planting bed, saving water and seed while keeping the furrows clear for irrigation.
"We were finding we couldn't use cover crops because of water," Foster said. The narrow strip makes the best use of the limited water supply, while garnering the benefits of cover crops - which buffer soil temperatures, inhibit weeds, increase soil microbial activity, improve water infiltration and add nutrients. Growing cover crops prepares the soil for the production of high-quality vegetables.
Foster is one of eight organic vegetable growers who are working with researchers at Chico State, Fresno State and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources on a project funded with a USDA grant designed to make significant improvements in soil care in organic production systems. He guided project participants around his farm, equipment yard and compost operation in early November to share the techniques he and his staff have developed over three decades to promote soil health.
Tour participants marveled at the soil characteristics, admiring tiny pores and roots in clods of dirt, evidence of the soil's capacity to move water and nutrients. They studied the plant and soil conditions after farm manager Efrain Contreras pulled a carefully crafted implement for rolling down the cover crop across the field with a tractor.
Foster credited Contreras, a 30-year employee, for his role in building the soil on the farm. Labor, Foster said, is his biggest cost. He has 50 full time staff, many with 5 to 20 years of experience.
"They are the key to to the success of the ranch," Foster said.
Minimizing and, eventually eliminating, soil disturbance can be combined with organic groundcover, year-round root growth and robust biological activity in the soil to further promote soil health. Following the tour, the farmers talked about ways to attain the goal on their farms of no-till organic vegetable production.
Foster said he will experiment with reducing soil disturbance to determine whether doing so will maintain or increase yields. Another farmer in the project, Scott Park of Meridian, Calif., 50 miles north of Sacramento, said he will dedicate eight acres of his organic farm to comparing the results when the cover crop is chopped and left on the soil surface to chopped and incorporated with tillage.
Paul Muller and Andrew Braitt of Fully Belly Farm in the Capay Valley suggested the researchers could help the farmers by identifying optimal, effective cover crop rolling techniques. Retired organic farmer Tom Willey of Madera suggested grant funds be used to purchase appropriate scale cover crop seeders for on-farm experimentation.
"We're making great progress," said project coordinator Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist. "By getting together regularly, we're seeing opportunities for moving further toward reduced-disturbance on the farms, identifying the equipment needs and establishing effective channels of communication."
Over the project's three-year term, the farmers and researchers will continue to experiment with soil-building techniques and share results.
A USDA grant will allow a group of California organic farmers to team up with researchers from the University of California, Chico State and Fresno State to determine whether tilling less soil on the farm will improve production of vegetable crops.
The aim is to duplicate the soil environment found in natural areas – typically concealed by plants, leaves and other organic debris – to improve agricultural soil health, increase production, reduce water use and avoid leaching nutrients out of the root zone.
“Tilling the soil is common on farms, but our research shows that it often isn't necessary, and can even be detrimental,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension agronomy specialist. “In nature, organic matter on the soil surface creates a protective layer and promotes biological activity that is beneficial to plants and the environment.”
The three-year project, funded with $380,000 from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service's Conservation Innovation Grant program, involves six organic farmers who are already experimenting on their own with cover crops, compost and minimum tillage to grow high-quality organic produce.
“This is a group of outstanding farmers,” Mitchell said. “It's very encouraging to see this sort of care for the soil. They recognize that taking care of the soil biology is useful to produce crops.”
One of the participants, Scott Park of Meridian, Calif., 50 miles north of Sacramento, has been building the soil on his farm for 38 years.
“We put 10 to 15 tons of biomass on every acre every year,” Park said. “This has given me good soil structure, water percolation and water retention, and we're having some really good results.”
Park said he tweaks his farming practices each year. To date, he has tinkered with reduced tillage, but isn't sold on a no-till system.
“I'm doing minimum till now, but it can be better,” Park said.
Teasing out those improvements is a goal of the project, which includes trials on four farms and two 12-acre demonstration plots, one at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points and the other on the Chico State campus.
“Each of us will be trying to get closer to the goal of reducing tillage to promote soil health. We all want to develop strategies that might work, and not repeat mistakes,” Mitchell said.
The USDA grant funds will enable the farmers and researchers to gather accurate data about the agronomic and economic impacts of the new farming systems and use state-of-the-art equipment and technologies as they experiment with new techniques.
For example, the team is working with a Salinas company that is bringing a Spanish transplanting technology to California. The company, Tanimura & Antle Produce, will allow a demonstration of a plant tape that holds sprouts spaced ideally for a broccoli field planting in the West Side REC plot. (See video below or on YouTube at https://youtu.be/6pkmQVNjH1I .) The technology holds promise for reducing tillage, cutting back on labor, using less seed, and bringing the crop into production earlier in the season.
Planting cover crops is another way farmers and researchers will seek to improve soil health, though this process is a challenge in organic farming systems. On conventional no-till and minimum-till farms, the cover crop may be sprayed with an herbicide before planting seedlings in the cover crop residue. Possible solutions are chopping up the cover crop or using a roller-crimper machine.
“These technologies would provide considerable advantages in organic systems, but very little research has been done to quantify how these practices might influence soil function and cropping system resilience in California,” Mitchell said.
As part of the project, a farmer network will be developed for information sharing, 18 public extension events will be held, six videos will be created and curriculum will be developed to extend the research outcomes.
For more information, contact Jeff Mitchell at email@example.com, or (559) 303-9689.
In the video below, see an overview of transplanting technology developed in Spain that will be part of the soil building research.
“Mike McRee has been extremely willing to share his experiences with others and has graciously hosted numerous public field days at his dairy farm over the years,” said Jeffrey Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist and CASI founder.
The dairy producer, who milks about 2,000 cows at his farm west of Chowchilla, double crops his own dairy forage along with tomatoes and alfalfa crops on about 850 acres. After his pioneering efforts with strip-till – some of the very earliest in the entire San Joaquin Valley – McRee soon found that the conservation agriculture practice saved him time and money as he had anticipated, and yielded other important benefits for his farm as well.
McRee noticed improved water-holding capacity of his soil since working with strip-tillage, as well as increased consistency in the soil's ability to absorb water, mellower soil overall, and more consistent crop stands and yields overall.
Improved soil tilth, increased soil organic matter and earthworms give him consistent yields year to year without extreme highs or lows.
McRee's quest to improve the performance of his silage production systems began back in 2007.
He readily admits that he faced challenges early on.
He tried no-till wheat, but was limited in this effort by hard, compacted soils. Having the right equipment is a key to the whole endeavor, McRee points out.
He has worked with local NRCS partners and the EQIP program, which assists growers with implementation of practices to improve our soil, water and air resources.
Following a great deal of consultation with other growers and experimentation, he developed a very successful strip-tillage system for his silage corps. The change was spurred initially by his interest in reducing the number of times he had to drive a tractor through his fields to save fuel and labor.
He now does fall primary tillage using a Wilcox 7-shank subsoil ripper with a crumbler. Vertical tillage has replaced disc plowing to achieve a smooth seedbed without turning the soil over.
After winter forage is harvested, preparation for corn silage planting begins. McRee explains that he rips the soil down 13 to 14 inches and uses coulters to prepare the seedbed. After pre-irrigation, he uses the Dawn Pluribus strip-till row unit, a tool that preps an eight-inch band of soil for planting. Using GPS, he can run his tractor 6 to 7 mph for this pass.
“With three passes, I can do everything,” McRee said.
“Additionally, McRee has recently installed subsurface drip irrigation that utilizes dairy lagoon water for his silage crops,” said Priscilla Baker, NRCS soil conservationist in Madera. “This project is in partnership with the organization Sustainable Conservation.”
McRee received the award Oct. 13 at the annual meeting of the San Joaquin Valley Resource Conservation Districts held at the Wool Growers' Restaurant in Los Banos.
In 2005, the University of California, NRCS and the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation (CASI) Center established the Conservation Agriculture Farmer Innovator Award as a means for providing greater visibility to conservation agriculture pioneers in California. The criteria for this award are demonstrated innovation and leadership in the development, refinement and use of conservation agriculture systems within the California crop production environment.
For more information about conservation agriculture systems, visit http://casi.ucanr.edu.