Cover Crops Have Big Benefits

Data Being Gathered to Measure Benefits of Cover Crops

By Tim Hammerich with the Ag Information Network of the West

Cover crops are touted in many areas for the benefits they bring to soil health, but they are not widely used in annual production in California. There are likely many reasons for this, but a big one is water retention. Allocations for irrigation are so tight that watering a crop to cover soil is perceived as not a great use of the precious resource.

But research from Extension Vegetable Crops Specialist Jeff Mitchell and others indicate there are some tradeoffs to consider.

“The aspect of adding organic matter, living roots and biology into the soil in the form of earthworms and other organisms that are burrowing and creating channels and pores; that can offset some of the water use elements there because you’re actually enabling the soil to more readily intake or infiltrate water,” said Mitchell.

Our research has also shown with some colleagues at UC Merced that over time if you’re increasing the organic matter through the practice of cover crop in the soil, you can actually affect the water-holding or storage capacity of the soil there. So it’s a subtle thing. I’m not at all saying that there’s no water use involved with cover crops because there certainly is. But the tradeoffs tend to be, on balance, less than most people think and relatively modest,” noted Mitchell.

Dr. Mitchell is collecting data on farms throughout the state to analyze the impact of practices like cover crops. is the largest Radio Network in the West with 140 Affiliate Radio Stations.

2020-05-29T13:49:39-07:00May 28th, 2020|

Cover Crops in Almonds Can Displace Annual Winter Weeds

Steve Haring Working With UC Davis on Cover Crops

By Mikenzi Meyers, Associate Editor

Depending on your location, cover crops can have a big impact on your fields. Steve Haring, second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis, has been collecting research on how different climates influence the effectiveness of cover crops.

Almond Cover Crop Displacing Weeds

“As we try to design cover crops, there are a lot of different paths we can take, and it’s important to test these different things out and see what is best for the specific things we can use cover crops for in the Central Valley,” Haring said.

He further mentioned that for optimum weed control in the Valley, growers should plant in the early winter months in order to prevent annual winter weeds.

Haring worked with the UC Davis Cooperative Extension on three different sites across both the Central Valley and northern Sacramento Valley collecting data on growth rates for cover crops. He found that because the northern valley had more direct sunlight hit the ground, cover crops thrived, and as a result, weeds were minimized.

The research will not stop there, though, Haring ensured. “The study I’m working on is funded by the Almond Board, and it’s continuing for a second year and maybe a third, so we’re trying to repeat it and validate and then also sort and synthesize information because there are people working on weeds but also working on water, insect pests, pollinator health, nematodes, and call sorts of ecosystem services,” he concluded.

2021-05-12T11:05:06-07:00February 20th, 2019|

Healthy Soils Initiative Looks at Cover Crops

Cover Crops Between Annual Veg Crops Studied

 By Patrick Cavanaugh, Editor

Research is under way to determine if using cover crops between two annual vegetable crops will improve the soil for future crops. It’s all part of the California Department of Food and Ag Healthy Soils Program—a statewide project.

Amber Vinchesi is a UCANR Vegetable Crops Farm Advisor in Colusa, Sutter and Yuba counties. She works mainly with processing tomatoes but also with growers farming vegetables for seed as well as fresh market vegetables such as honeydew and cantaloupe melons.

Vinchesi is collaborating with California’s Healthy Soils Initiative, a partnership of state agencies and departments led by the CDFA Healthy Soils Project. It’s a combination of innovative farm and land management practices that may contribute to building adequate soil organic matter that may increase carbon sequestration and reduce overall greenhouse gases.

“We have three sites, and the site that I’m working on is focused on winter cover crops between crops such as wheat, tomato or corn, to improve soil health,” said Vinchesi, who is being assisted by her colleague Sarah Light, the agronomy advisor in Sutter, Yuba, and Colusa counties

Other Healthy Soil sites are located in the Delta area, and overseen by Michelle Leinfelder-Miles, UCANR Delta Crops Resource Management Advisor in San Joaquin County. Brenna Aegerter, a UCANR Vegetable Crops Farm Advisor also in San Joaquin County, is working with Leinfelder-Miles. Additionally, Scott Stoddard a UCANR Vegetable Crops Farm Advisor in Merced County has a site.

The cover crop will be vetch, a legume.

“We hope that it will put nitrogen and biomass into the soil,” Vinchesi said. “We’re not sure what the results will be, but we hope it will help with aggregate stability, water infiltration, and even reduce weed density.”

She noted that the trial, which is in the first year of a three-year project, will include two different seeding rates, a high and low rate, and then an untreated control where there’s no cover crop.

“And we’ll do soil testing to see how things change in the soil over time,” she explained.

2021-05-12T11:05:06-07:00January 29th, 2019|

Forward Farms is a Knowledge Platform

Forward Farms Reaches America

By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor

Becky Langer, the project manager for the North American Bayer Bee Care Program, recently spoke with California Ag Today about Bayer Forward Farms — a knowledge platform that demonstrates sustainable agriculture and practice through agronomic solutions and proactive stewardship measures — and their recent introduction to the U.S. Forward Farming started in Europe. It is coming to the United States this year.

“We will launch our first forward farm in the Chesapeake Bay area in April of 2018,” Langer said.

Forward Farms are independent farms that represent the region in which they are located. These farms showcase sustainable agricultural practices and highlight the benefits of sustainable farming. They hope to expand to California within the next year or two and eventually into the Midwest or the south.

“Ideally, we are going to cover the different cropping systems that we see in the United States because the Forward Farm ideally focuses on farms that are representative of their region within the crop and size of it,” Langer said.

The Chesapeake Bay has soy, wheat and corn. In California, they hope to focus on some horticulture, nuts, fruits and vegetables. In the Midwest will be another large corn operation.

The goal of these Forward Farms is demonstration.

“We want to demonstrate that those farmers have a passion for sustainability. They are using it in practice on their farms and that this goes hand in hand with environmental and social responsibility,” Langer said.

The goal is to have modern agriculture along with sustainability. Things will focus on soil, cover crops, habitat enhancement, biodiversity on land, water conservation, and worker safety.

“Those are all critical when we talk about sustainability in modern agriculture, and so those will be real drivers in the conversation,” Langer explained.

2018-04-02T16:46:27-07:00April 2nd, 2018|

Helping Bees with Cover Crops Helps Orchards

Keeping Pollinating Bees in Almond Orchards

By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor

California Ag Today recently spoke with Billy Synk, director of pollination programs with project Apis M, a group whose goal is to fund and direct research for the health of honey bees. Synk discussed bees and cover crops in almond orchards.

“They have a preference for the almonds bloom,” he explained.

Almond blossoms have 25 percent protein. The structure of the flower is also a lot more open, making it easier to get into than other flowers.

“UC Davis has done research on bloom competition. It really is not a valid concern as much as you want to keep bees on a specific crop or in a specific area. So if you’re able to provide that alternative flowers right underneath the trees, you’re just going to keep them from wandering off,” Synk said.

Cover crops are planted around almond orchards to stimulate honeybees. One of these mixes is called PAm mustard mix.

“That master mix has canola, three different species of mustard, and then daikon radishes,” he said. “The white daikon radish is not just for the honeybees; it benefits the soil as well. Its long taproot breaks up compacted soil and provides much needed organic matter when it decomposes.”

2021-05-12T11:05:13-07:00March 12th, 2018|

Billy Synk Manages Seeds for Bees Program

Cover Crops and Bee Health

By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor

California Ag Today recently spoke with Billy Synk, director of pollination programs with project Apis m (the genus/species of European honey bee). We asked him about bees and the importance of cover crops in relation to bee health, and orchard soil health.

Early this year was difficult year with the lack of rain.

“Those almond growers that were on drip did not really have great cover crop stands,” he said.

The project Apis m mustard mix  is a combination of canola, musters, and daikon radish that will bloom before the almonds and give the bees a boost of nutrition energy before the almond bloom starts.

“All these colonies from everywhere in America that are at their hungriest or at the weakest are placed in almond orchards, and they’ve got their most important job to do: that’s pollinate almonds,” Synk explained.

These cover crops are important to get bees stimulated before almond bloom.

“If you can get them stimulated before the almonds bloom, they are going to have a lot more vigor and vitality and really attack those blooms when it is time,” Synk said.

The bees go after the almond blossoms in what is called a positive feedback loop.

“They are looking for signs of spring, day length, and temperature, but they’re also looking for the very first fresh pollen to come in that year,” Synk said.

Bees will lay more eggs inside their hive when the new pollen comes.

“That brood has a pheromone that cues the bees to  leave the hive to harvest more pollen to support more bees, and the whole cycle continues,” Synk explained.

2021-05-12T11:05:13-07:00March 5th, 2018|

Cover Crops Help Bees and Soil

Flowering Cover Crops Stimulates Bees

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

California Ag Today recently interviewed Billy Synk, director of pollination programs for Project Apis m and manager of the Seeds for Bees Project. The Project Apis m mission is to fund and direct research to enhance the health and vitality of honeybee colonies while improving crop production. He spoke on the benefits of cover crops for honeybee health.

“It’s an amazing project and an exciting project to work on and manage because it’s doing two good things at once. It’s a win-win situation. It’s helping out the soil and helping out bees,” Synk said.

When Synk speaks to growers, he mentions those two good reasons.

“Do it to help the bees that are in your orchard become stronger, and do a better job pollinating, but then also help your soil with organic matter and improved water infiltration.”

There are about two million beehives, coming to California from every corner of the United States, and the bees are very hungry.

“Not only are they very hungry, they’re the hungriest they have been all year, and their most important job is to pollinate almonds. Well, if you can have a cover crop blooming before those almonds bloom, you can stimulate them a lot better and create a positive feedback loop,” Synk said.

Synk explained that as more pollen comes into the hive, they rear more bees.

“That brood has a pheromone that tell the adult bees to leave the hive and go collect pollen. That stimulation is just going to make that hive excited and strong and ready to go the day that those almonds bloom,” he said.

Contact Project Apis m for more information and to possibly get cover crop seeds to plant this season.






2021-05-12T11:05:14-07:00December 12th, 2017|

Sustainable Farming: Let’s Focus on a Farm’s Performance, Not its Size

In case you missed it, we are posting the article, “Let’s Focus on a Farm’s Performance, Not its Size,” with permission, from Environmental Defense Fund’s Growing Returns blog.

By  | BIO

Credit: Flickr user Dwight Sipler

What comes to mind when you think of a “family farm?” You’re probably picturing a bucolic spread of less than 100 acres, with a red barn, farmer in overalls, and cows grazing a big pasture. What about the phrase “corporate farm” or “?” Do you see a giant, impersonal and industrial-looking operation?

Unfortunately, these common (mis)perceptions are regularly promoted in everything from TV ads to online chats. But the reality is that “big” does not equate to “bad,” and “small” doesn’t necessarily mean “good” when it comes to sustainable farming. In fact, it’s the wrong debate altogether.

What really matters is performance, not size.

Today is National Agriculture Day, celebrated annually on March 18, and this year’s theme is sustaining future generations. If we’re going to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population, we’re going to need large and small farms alike. And no matter their size, they’ll need to minimize their impacts on the natural systems that sustain us all.

Addressing the myth

It’s a myth that large farms can’t be sustainable, just as it’s a myth that all family farms are small and better for the environment.

Take Christine Hamilton, for example, whose family farm produces corn, soybeans, winter wheat and cattle across 14,000 acres in South Dakota. For years she’s been participating in USDA conservation programs, using no-till practices, planting trees to limit erosion, and utilizing variable rate technologies to improve the environment and her yields.

There are also places like Fair Oaks Farms, which milks over 500 cows … an hour. To make their large operation more sustainable, Fair Oaks pumps methane from its livestock to an on-site natural gas station that compresses it into fuel for the farm’s fleet of 40 milk trucks.

Many small-farm operations implement sustainable practices as well. A perfect example is Full Belly Farms, a 400-acre organic farm in Northern California that won last year’s prestigious Leopold Conservation Award. But I’ve visited small farms where livestock roam freely into streams, soil erosion destroys riverbanks, and nutrient management plans are nonexistent.

Sharing responsibility4.1.1

In the U.S., agriculture already occupies 51 percent of our land, uses 80 percent of the [Nation’s consumptive*] water, and is responsible for 8 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. And in the coming decades U.S. farms will be responsible for producing even more food. In order to make agriculture a plus for the environment, farm practices will need to change.

Of course, we have to keep in mind the context here. Mid-size and large-scale family farms account for 8 percent of U.S. farms but 60 percent of the value of production, so in order to bring sustainable agriculture to scale, they will have to do the bulk of the work. But small farms have a much higher share of production for specific commodities in the U.S. – they account for 56 percent of domestic poultry production, for example – so we’ll need their leadership, too.

Regardless of size, all farms need to:

  • Minimize the loss of nutrients and soil to air and water through nutrient optimization strategies such as conservation tillage.
  • Use water as efficiently as possible.
  • Improve soil health through strategies such as cover crops.
  • Avoid plowing up ecologically important lands.
  • Fence livestock out of streams and implement management plans to maintain healthy grazing lands and avoid overgrazing
  • Use strategically placed filters to capture excess nutrients.

It’s time we shift the public debate and get everyone on board the sustainability train. Arguing about a farm’s size won’t deliver environmental benefits. In the end, it’s all about performance.


*“California Ag Today added Nation’s consumptive” from the original USDA text and offers the following definitions:

Consumptive water use” is a use of water that removes the water from the system so that it cannot be recovered for reuse by some other entity. Consumptive uses may be beneficial or non‐beneficial. A beneficial consumptive use would be crop evapotranspiration.

(Source: Agricultural Water Use in California: A 2011 Update 3 © Center for Irrigation Technology November 2011)

Evapotranspiration (ET) is the amount of water transpired by plants, retained in plant tissues, and evaporated from plant tissues and surrounding soil surfaces.

(Sources: (1) California Water Plan Update 2009 Glossary. Department of Water Resources. Resources Agency. State of California; (2) Agricultural Water Use in California: A 2011 Update 3 © Center for Irrigation Technology November 2011)

If the basis for the discussion is water consumptively used by only agricultural, municipal & industrial users, then agriculture’s share would be estimated in the range of 80 percent of the total. However, if the percentage is based on dedicated water, which includes environmental uses, then agriculture’s share is more in the range of 40 percent.

(Sources: (1) California Water Plan Update 2009 Glossary. Department of Water Resources. Resources Agency. State of California; (2) Agricultural Water Use in California: A 2011 Update 3 © Center for Irrigation Technology November 2011)

Dedicated water – as defined by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) is “water distributed among urban and agricultural uses, used for protecting and restoring the environment, or storage in surface water and groundwater reservoirs. In any year, some of the dedicated supply includes water that is used multiple times (reuse) and water held in storage from previous years. This is about 40 to 50 percent of the total annual water supply received from precipitation and imported from Colorado, Oregon, and Mexico.”

Context: Water Portfolio”1 (Source: Agricultural Water Use in California: A 2011 Update 3 © Center for Irrigation Technology November 2011)

Dedicated water includes water flowing in the Wild and Scenic Rivers. Many partially used or unrestricted rivers could have been significantly diverted for use by municipal & industrial and/or agriculture. However, these waters have been dedicated by law to the environment. Other examples of dedicated water are the 800,000 acre‐feet/year reallocated back to the environment by the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) and the 647,000 AF/year reallocated back for Trinity River restoration of that river’s fishery.

(Sources: (1) Record of Decision. Trinity River Mainstem Fishery Restoration. Final Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report. U.S. Department of the Interior. December 2000; (2) Westlands Water District vs. U.S. Department of Interior. Case Nos. 03‐15194, 03‐15289, 03‐15291 and 03‐15737. Argued and Submitted Feb. 9, 2004 ‐ July 13, 2004, United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit)


The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) works directly with businesses, government and communities to create lasting solutions to the most serious environmental problems. EDF’s Growing Returns Blog posts news about the organization’s goal of meeting growing demands for food in ways that improve the environment.

2016-05-31T19:30:26-07:00March 21st, 2015|

Free UCCE Online Training to Increase Food Safety and Protect Natural Resources

UCCE On-Line Training Helps Growers Safeguard Their  Produce Fields

By Pam Kan-Rice, Assistant Director, University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources


On their farms, growers are active stewards of the land, protecting soil quality and water quality as well as supporting wildlife by preserving their habitat. At the same time, fresh produce growers must ensure that their crops are free from pathogens that can cause foodborne illnesses.

To help growers and food safety professionals achieve all of these important goals, UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) has launched a free online course.

“Actions that farmers take to protect food safety may affect natural resources, and conservation practices may affect food safety,” said Mary Bianchi, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, who oversaw design of the course.

The intent of the UCCE online training is to demonstrate that communication between food safety professionals and growers can help to achieve a balance between food safety and sustainability.

“Our co-management course will help food safety professionals better evaluate the risk of conservation practices,” said Bianchi.

“For example, cover crops attract beneficial insects, help control soil erosion and improve soil quality, but they may attract wildlife,” she said. “In the course, we demonstrate frank conversations between food safety auditors and growers about strategies for minimizing the potential risks of crops being contaminated by animal feces. Growers can often provide existing examples, such as monitoring programs or temporary fencing that excludes wild and domestic animals from produce fields.”

The course also provides growers with tools to evaluate their strategies for managing food safety and sustainability.

“After the training, growers and auditors will be better prepared to engage in realistic and frank discussions of co-management strategies used in crop production” Bianchi said.

The free UCCE online co-management course and related resources are online at UCCE San Luis Obispo County website.

This project was funded by a $39,650 grant from the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

A video describing co-management practices from farm to fork can be viewed online at “Co-Management of Food Safety and Sustainability in Fresh Produce“.

2016-05-31T19:32:20-07:00October 15th, 2014|
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