The Mediterranean climate and productive soils of California make the state one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. California produces over 250 different crops and leads the nation in production of 75 commodities. Californian agriculture is characterized by its high production capacity through very intensive management of irrigated cropping systems. Intensive management is characterized by a combination of chemical inputs and a combined use of extensive tillage and surface irrigation practices. Increasing water use efficiency and decreasing tillage, as well as building healthier soils more broadly, are necessary to enhance the competitiveness of the region’s agriculture.
Reduced tillage practices have been shown to significantly increase water availability and reduce soil erosion in arid environments. The adoption of reduced tillage, or conservation tillage, practices has been problematic in California due to the accumulation of crop residues on the soil, which impedes water movement in the most common irrigation practice of furrow run water. The residues act to dam the water in the furrow resulting in increased infiltration and requires additional water to be added to the field to compensate. However, the mulch effect of crop residues decreases evapotranspiration from soil, resulting in a small potential water savings. The significance in the reduction of evapotranspiration losses from the residue mulch effect compared to increased water inputs from impeded water flow has not been adequately studied to determine the potential benefits of reduced tillage in furrow irrigated systems in California. In overhead or drip irrigated systems, residues do not necessitate the application of additional water and in fact may require less applied water to meet crop needs.
Research on the effects of reduced tillage on winter runoff has produced mixed results in California. In other regions of the US, long-term reduced or no-till systems generally reduce runoff by infiltrating a greater degree of precipitation. In California, our heavier soils can lead to increased soil surface crust formation and compaction, often leading to greater runoff of winter precipitation. However, the long-term effects of reduced tillage may eliminate these issues through accumulation of surface soil organic matter that will minimize crust formation and the effects of compaction.
Overall, the practices of reduced tillage and winter cover cropping have additional soil benefits, namely increasing soil organic matter content. Other practices such as the application of manure and compost can significantly increase soil organic matter. Combining these practices has an additive effect on building soil organic matter. Increasing soil organic matter improves fertility by adding nutrients and cation exchange capacity, enhances soil structure through aggregation and promotes water infiltration and storage. The benefits support enhanced crop growth through increased nutrient availability, better soil tilth and more available water.
The use of winter cover crops can dramatically affect the hydrology of irrigated fields. Up to 20% of precipitation can run off fields left fallow during the winter. The use of winter cover crops can practically eliminate runoff from agricultural fields. Part of the infiltrated water will recharge groundwater and some is lost from the crop through transpiration. Loss through transpiration can negate groundwater recharge if the cover crop is left too long in the field, therefore timely cover crop removal is required to maximize the potential to infiltrate precipitation. Further study on exactly how much additional water will recharge groundwater is required to better determine the benefits of winter cover crops. The use of winter cover crops should be considered in areas prone to flooding. In addition, winter cover crops “catch” or utilize residual fertilizer nitrogen for growth and reduce the potential for nitrate leaching and the emission of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. These complimentary benefits represent significant steps towards cropping system sustainability. However, the adoption of winter cover cropping practices has been very slow for primarily three reasons. First, the establishment of winter cover crops following the harvest of a summer crop depends on timing of the first winter rains. Winter rains may impede entry to fields to establish a cover crop. Conversely, sufficient winter rains are needed to establish and maintain the cover crop until rainfall becomes persistent during the months of January and February. Secondly, managing the winter cover crop requires timely field entry to stop growth and reduce excessive soil water depletion. Delayed field entry from late spring rains can make a winter cover crop difficult to deal with because of the excessive biomass accumulation. The depletion of soil water reserves from excessive winter cover crop growth may require additional summer irrigation. Third, winter cover crops enhance soil infiltration overall by building soil structure through the input of organic matter. This results in increased infiltration of irrigation water at the head end of the field and may require additional water to irrigate the tail end of the fields in furrow irrigation systems. For these reasons, the use of winter cover crops has not been widely adopted. It may be possible to compensate farmers through conservation payments or some sort of crop insurance model to make utilizing cover crops more of a standard practice.
Overall, the use of the sustainable practices of reduced tillage, soil amendments and winter cover cropping likely have benefits that outweigh their challenges. Reduced tillage will decrease fuel consumption and benefit both the grower economically and reduce fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions. The use of winter cover crops will increase soil water storage from winter rains and may lead to decreased summer irrigation inputs. Cover crops also build soil organic matter and reduce nitrous oxide emission. These practices could place California agriculture in the forefront of sustainable agriculture management and provide a unique competitive market position. The competitiveness of California agriculture will be bolstered compared to other regions adopting these practices because of the high productivity and diversity of crops.
Until now, supportive water polices have allowed farmers access to plentiful water, but increasing urban and environmental demands are putting greater pressure on limited supplies. In addition, other policies have essentially ignored agriculture’s potential to address climate change through soil carbon sequestration and reduction of nitrous oxide emissions from more efficient fertilizer and water use practices. The confluence of these two shifts in farming considerations provides a perfect economic and environmental opportunity for farmers to adopt more efficient water management practices. In addition, building soil organic matter through carbon sequestration enhances soil quality and has a long-term positive effect on crop production.
Mulching, cover cropping and reduced tillage can all serve to minimize the need for applied water. Building soil organic matter and improving soil structure are key drought-management strategies. No-till, for example, can increase organic matter in the soil’s surface by 1,000 lbs/ac/yr. According to the Encyclopedia of Soil Science, each kilogram of soil organic matter can absorb 20 times its weight in water. In effect, the soil can be viewed as a sponge or a water reservoir in its own right. Furthermore, improving soil structure, particularly in the surface layer, can improve infiltration and percolation. Rodale Institute studies report that the open soil surface structure resulting from building soil organic matter increases percolation 25 to 50% over unimproved soils.
One of the challenges in implementing reduced tillage practices is finding compatible irrigation practices. Both subsurface drip and overhead sprinkler would be compatible with reduced tillage since crop residues would not interfere with water application as with furrow irrigation. Comparative studies of drip systems versus furrow irrigation have shown that drip systems can be more efficient in terms of N use (10-20% less) and water use (20-50% less) with comparable yields. Similar water savings can be realized with overhead sprinkler technology.
The implementation of reduced tillage, winter cover crops and more efficient irrigation practices would address sustainability issues related to water resources, climate change and the economic viability of farm operations. The reduction in tillage can best be managed with subsurface drip and overhead sprinkler irrigation. Subsurface drip irrigation can also address nitrous oxide emission through efficient fertigation compared to the standard approach of one-time application of fertilizers. A recent study at UC Davis has shown that subsurface drip irrigation can significantly reduce nitrous oxide emission especially following a winter cover crop compared to furrow irrigation. Currently, fewer than 5% of growers in California implement reduced tillage and winter cover crops; there is significant potential for expansion. Studies at UC Davis have shown that row crops in any region could benefit from these approaches. The scale of the farming operation may impact the potential to implement these practices. Subsurface drip systems are expensive and are often used on higher value crops such as tomatoes, grapes and tree crops. Overhead sprinkler technology is also expensive but combined with reduced tillage and water savings could make them more affordable. The reduction of water, fertilizer nitrogen and fuel inputs will increase the competitiveness of California agriculture and provide growers an opportunity to participate in emerging carbon and greenhouse gas markets as an additional income source.
The environmental and social benefits of more efficient on-farm water and energy use are a necessity to addressing the increasing demands for water and reduction in energy inputs. The approaches outlined in the above sections provide the means to sustain California agriculture through addressing emerging environmental concerns and maintaining or enhancing the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers. The main benefits to adopting reduced tillage and winter cover cropping – aside from reducing water and energy use – is the building of soil quality. Increasing soil quality will reduce loss of nutrients to surface and groundwater supplies. Maintaining the quality of groundwater will become increasingly important as we rely on groundwater reserves to address gaps in water supply due to urban and environmental demands and the effects of climate change. Soil erosion is also significantly reduced by improving soil structure and reducing the flow of water over the soil surface. Reduced tillage also reduces fuel consumption and soil compaction. The combined benefits of addressing water limitations, energy use and increasing soil quality will ensure the viability of California agriculture.
Available Water Capacity and Soil Organic Matter. By Tom G. Huntington, United States Geological Survey (USGS).
A good reference document from the Encyclopedia of Soil Science. 2009.
Building Soils for Better Crops, 3rd edition. By Fred Magdoff and Harold van Es.
This 241-page book covers the basics of soil organic matter as well as soil and crop management with compost, manure, cover crops, crop rotation, reduced tillage, and nutrient management.
Drought Resistant Soil. By Preston Sullivan.
A concise overview of managing soils for drought resistance, published by ATTRA.
Healthier Soils to Get Through Drought
Farmers using soil health management systems are finding their soil to be more drought-tolerant. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service is working with farmers to improve soil health and function to help crops survive droughts.
NRCS Technical Guide
NRCS provides a set of key technical resources to guide on-farm water (and other resource) management practices. These include information and recommendations about specific practices related to soil management as they pertain to local areas. Visit the onlineField Office Technical Guide (eFOTG) and click through to the map to your county for details. Once there, you can search through practices listed in Section IV of the pull-down menu in the left-hand column of the page. Here, you may also find information about financial support that may be available for implementing these practices. In addition to practice-specific assistance, the eFOTG provides key data to help growers in resource management decision-making, including natural resource information (Section II in the pull-down menu) about local soil (e.g. web soil survey), water, air, plant and animal resources; planning tools for developing resource management systems (Section III); and other useful tools and information.
Soil Fertility Management for Organic Crops. By Mark Gaskell, Richard Smith, Jeff Mitchell, Steven T. Koike, Tim Hartz, William Horwath, and Louise Jackson
A 2006 publication by UC Cooperative Extension and the UC Davis Department of Soils and Biogeochemistry.
Soil Fertility Management for Organic Crops
Information on soil fertility management for organic crops by UC Cooperative Extension Small Farm Center at UC Davis.
Soil Health Information and Listerv
Link to NRCS national site for soil health with information, resources, a listserv, and more.
Soil Management and Soil Quality for Organic Crops. By Jeff Mitchell, Mark Gaskell, Richard Smith, Calvin Fouche, and Steven T. Koike
A 2000 publication by UC Cooperative Extension.
Online interactive soil mapping in California provided by the UC Davis Soil Resource Laboratory. SoilWeb products can be used to access USDA-NCSS detailed soil survey data (SSURGO) for most of the United States.
Sustainable Soils Management. By Preston Sullivan.
This ATTRA publication covers basic soil properties and management steps toward building and maintaining healthy soils.
Sustainable Dryland Cropping in Relation to Soil Productivity. By C.J. Pearson.
A book published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Covers dry farming, cropping systems and soil management.
USDA – NRCS Web Soil Survey
The Web Soil Survey (WSS) provides soil data and information produced by the National Cooperative Soil Survey. It provides soil maps and data available online for more than 95 percent of the nation’s counties.
Water Conservation Best Management Practices (BMP) Guide for Agriculture in Texas. By the Texas Water Development Board.
Covers irrigation water use management, land management, water district delivery systems, etc.
Reduced Tillage Resources
Conservation Technology Information Center
This is a website dedicated to conservation tillage. It features articles and publications covering the basics of conservation tillage, new research and technologies, and listing of conservation tillage organizations throughout North America.
Conservation Tillage. By Preston Sullivan.
An ATTRA introduction to conservation tillage, including descriptions of ridge tillage and no-till.
Minimum Tillage Vegetable Crop Production in California by Jeffrey Mitchell, Louise Jackson, and Gene Miyao.
This article covers reduced-tillage, or minimum-tillage, production systems for vegetables as a strategy to control costs and manage soils.
UC Cooperative Extension Conservation Tillage Workgroup
This website details the practice of conservation tillage including case studies, equipment contacts, multi-media presentations and publications.
Mulch & Compost Resources
Natural Resource, Agriculture and Engineering Service (NRAES) On-Farm Composting Handbook
This 186-page handbook presents a thorough overview of farm-scale composting and explains how to produce, use, and market compost. It includes information on the benefits and drawbacks, the process, raw materials, methods, operations, and management of on-farm composting.
Cover Crop Resources
Building Soil Organic Matter
The Sustainable Agricultural Farming Systems project began at UC Davis in 1988 to examine the transition from conventional to sustainable and organic systems.
Managing Cover Crops Profitably
This is a comprehensive 244-page manual detailing the benefits of cover crops and their use in building soil tilth, managing pests, and conservation tillage. It includes a detailed review of seed species including non-legume, legume and seed blends.
Online Cover Cropping Resources
USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program has assembled a collection of educational materials developed out of decades of SARE-funded cover crop research.
UC SAREP Cover Crop Database
This is an extensive database of information about the management and effects of more than 32 species of plants usable as cover crops.
Adragna Ranch uses an electrical resistance-type moisture monitoring system that tracks soil moisture levels, which aids in utilizing the irrigation system more effectively to prevent over-watering.
American Farms uses several water-saving techniques for their 7,500 acres of vegetable crops. The farm grows these crops in 80-inch permanent beds, which are wider than the standard 40-inch. This reduces evaporative losses and retains soil moisture, which reduces overall water use. The farm also minimizes tillage to improve soil quality and increase infiltration. Although the system takes up nearly 8 percent of the farm area, time and money saved watering helps them to plant multiple crops a year. American Farms also uses transplants, rather than growing crops from seed, in order to save time between crops and reduce the quantities of water and herbicide that would be needed to support seedlings.
Benziger Winery has been using biodynamic farming practices since 1996, which focuses on creating healthy soil. The biodynamic farming system includes cover crop and compost use, which help with water infiltration, soil moisture holding capacity, and reduction of run-off.
The Burroughs Farm organic almonds and operate an organic pasture-based dairy near Merced in California’s Central Valley. Soil management is just one of the climate-friendly farming practices they employ.
This August 2012 edition of the California Report, entitled ‘Conservation Agriculture’ Gains Favor With Farmers, highlights farmers using winter cover crops and strip tillage in response to water shortages.
Frog’s Leap Winery utilizes dry farming techniques, which cultivates the soil to store winter rains and supply moisture to the crop during the entire growing season. Compost and cover crops are used at the beginning of the season to improve soil structure and moisture holding capacity, and provide essential nutrients to the soil and plants.
John Anderson, the founder of Hedgerow Farms was driven to become a farmer because his love of wildlife and concern about disappearing wildlife habitats. Hedgerow Farms grows over 60 species of native grassland seed and transplants for various bioregional eco-types. The plans roots help build soil structure, enhancing water infiltration and groundwater recharge.
Limoneira Company, which grows a variety of fruit and nut crops on 7,000 acres in Ventura County, applies organic mulch to increase soil moisture. Limoneira formed a partnership with Agromin Corporation to help Ventura County meet required reductions in waste delivered to landfills. The partnership, formed in 2004, mutually benefits both companies. Limoneira provides Agromin with access to five acres of land, on which Agromin produces organic mulch and compost from municipal green waste collected from Ventura County residents. In exchange, Agromin provides Limoneira with valuable soil amendments for their farming operations. This case study is one in a series from the California Institute for Rural Studies report California Water Stewards: Innovative On-Farm Water Management Strategies.
John Teixeira of Lone Willow Ranch in Firebaugh, California is a beneficiary of the conservation programs of the USDA. He is committed to building soil fertility, conserving water, protecting water quality, and storing carbon in the soil to reduce climate change impacts.
At Hilltop & Canyon Farms, the Abbott Family uses a coarse mulch of wood chips, horse manure, and municipal green waste to improve soil moisture, reduce soil evaporative losses, prevent disease, reduce erosion, and improve soil health on their 50 acres of avocado trees.
This case study explores various water-efficient practices associated with urban agriculture, and highlights Planting Justice, an organization that incorporates principles of small-scale, sustainable food production with food justice and economic justice efforts.
A concise description of John Diener’s Integrated On-Farm Drainage Management system, the crops he grows, and by-products produced. John Diener’s integrated on-farm drainage management system has allowed him to reduce his irrigation water needs by 20%. This case study is one in a series produced by the California Institute for Rural Studies. A description of Diener’s solar evaporator can be found here.
At Straus Family Creamery separated manure solids are an excellent source of compost for pastureland and silage crops. The compost improves water infiltration and soil moisture holding capacity and helps reduce soil erosion. Correction to the case study: Straus Family Creamery is actually 500 acres, not 660 acres as stated. The 160 additional acres is Straus Home Ranch and is own by Michael Staus and his sisters.
A recent UC Davis study comparing furrow irrigation (FI) and subsurface drip irrigation (SDI), and the effects of winter cover crops and tillage (standard versus no-till) under each irrigation treatment. Results include a 40 to 50% higher water use efficiency and a significant reduction in nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas) emission in subsurface drip as compared with furrow irrigation.
Content for this page was originally developed by William Horwath, UC Davis Department of Land, Air, and Water Resources. Various others have since contributed content.