No-Till Saves Water, Increases Yield


No-Tillage Sorghum Yields Exceed Standard Tillage in a Four-Year Rotation

Since the advent of irrigation in California with the widespread drilling of wells in the 1930s and the proliferation of orchard crops during the past two decades, total annual water use in many watersheds exceeds supply. Partly as a consequence, California enacted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014, which limits withdrawals to replenished levels.

Because irrigated agriculture accounts for nearly 80% of total water use, reductions in irrigation will be required, but preferably without decreasing either productivity or food supply. Furthermore, with some climate change projections suggesting a potential 20% water loss by the middle of the century, the need for more efficient water use could become acute. Fortunately, some water-saving methods such as drip irrigation have been supported by the government and there have been programs that have increased implementation and farmers understand these methods well.

Reduced disturbance tillage, or no-till, however, also offers an under-utilized strategy for increasing agricultural water use efficiency in California. There has been very little research and there is very little information available to farmers on no-till production systems for the diverse array of crops that have been produced in the state historically.

UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist Jeff Mitchell led a diverse team of ANR, farmer, private sector and other public agency partners to evaluate the potential for producing sorghum and garbanzos, using high residue, no-till techniques in the San Joaquin Valley in a four-year study conducted at ANR’s ag experiment station in Five Points, Calif.

Standard tillage practices have been used throughout the region for nearly 90 years. Using similar inputs and amounts and pest management, they showed that a garbanzo and sorghum rotation in no-till yielded at least as well as in standard tillage.

Sorghum yields were similar in no-till and standard tillage systems while garbanzo yields matched or exceeded no-till than in standard tillage, depending on the year.

In the trial, no-till garbanzos yielded an average of 3,417 pounds per acre versus standard tillage with an average of 2,738 pounds per acre; garbanzo production in California, which is almost all in standard till, averages 2,300 pounds per acre.

We envision that if water costs continue to rise and as curtailments on water supply increase, the value of agricultural land in California will eventually decline, providing more of an economic incentive for using no-till for growing a portfolio of crops, such as sorghum and garbanzo, amenable to these pending constraints on irrigation.

In addition, there already exists high acreage of relatively low-value field crops in the state. As annual row crop farmers are faced with the need to reduce water use, knowing which field crops perform well in no-tillage conditions is important for the region. For this reason, this work may serve as a decision-making tool for growers in the future, especially if there is the opportunity to both reduce management costs and maintain yields

An outgrowth of this work on no-till systems is the group of about 15 farmers who’re now a part of a USDA NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant Program project that is looking at opportunities and approaches for reducing disturbance in organic vegetable production systems.


Sorghum Not Well Known in the U.S.

Sorghum Used in Different Ways in the World

By Mikenzi Meyers, Associate Editor

The Kearney Ag Research and Extension Center is currently doing extensive drought tolerant research on sorghum, a plant with a variety of uses. Jeff Dahlberg, director of the Kearny Ag Research and Extension Center in Parlier, knows the complexity of the plant, and the need to educate farmers about it.

Sorghum is used for humans and animal feed around the world.

“The challenge here is that nobody knows very much about sorghum, and I have to kind of retrain our nutrition people about how to use it properly, and how to treat it so that you can get the most use out of it,” Dahlberg said.

He further added that in most parts of the world sorghum is primarily used for human consumption, however, here in the United States, we use it for animal feed. Dahlberg has been looking into introducing the plant to California dairies as an alternative for forages that require more water.

Even though producers that currently use sorghum are pleased with the results, a new problem has been brought to Dahlberg’s attention.

“We had this insect show up called the Sugarcane Aphid. It can be controlled, but it takes a bit of management,” he explained.

Although the aphid presents challenges, Dahlberg knows that with the proper training the issue can be resolved.

For more information on the Kearney Ag Research and Extension Center, visit:

Drought Tolerant Sorghum in CA

California Ideal for Drough Research

By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor

Research is being done on drought tolerance and sorghum. California Ag Today recently spoke with Jeff Dahlberg, director of the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier about the topic.

“The sorghum research has gone pretty well for the drought tolerance; we have just finished publishing our fifth article on their first year of data,” he said.

There is a lot of interest in the research findings developing through all the drought work. California is a unique spot to do drought work on a field scale because it does not rain very often.

“That allows us to basically control the field through our ability to add water whenever we want to. I’m really excited about this,” Dahlberg said.

There are genes that are turned off and on with the application and/or lack of water.

Jeff Dahlberg, director of the Kearney Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Parlier, Fresno County
Jeff Dahlberg, director of the Kearney Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Parlier, Fresno County

“The challenge for us now is to start taking all this data and trying to make some sense out of it,” Dahelberg explained.

It is critical to find out which genes are needed for drought tolerance and how they can get them expressed in plants.

“I think this is long-term basic research but has long-term implications in our ability to produce more drought tolerant crops to help feed the world,” Dahlberg said.

Sorghum has a long-standing history in California. It was grown here in the late 1800s. The USDA brought sorghum to California as a drought-tolerant feed.

“In the 1960s, there were almost 400,000 acres of grain sorghum grown in the state, primarily as a rotation crop for cotton,” Dahlberg said.

This crop is making a come-back with all of the droughts California has been going through.

“It’s a very drought tolerant crop. Probably one of the most drought tolerance cereal crops that we grow worldwide,” Dahlberg explained.

Sorghum May Be Alternative to Corn

Researcher Looks to Sorghum to Replace Corn Silage in Dry Years

By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor

Water has been a big issue in California for the last couple of years, and many dairy producers are looking for an alternative to corn silage for when water is scarce. Sorghum silage may be a viable alternative to corn. California Ag Today met with Jennifer Heguy, a farm advisor with the UC Cooperative Extension in Merced County who is working on a project, funded by the University of California, to research sorghum.

Heguy’s project consists of looking at sorghum silage to see if it is a good replacement for dairies when California does not have enough water to grow corn. Heguy said this is, “not a good time to talk about sorghum right now because we’ve had a really wet winter and we had this devastating sugar cane aphid last year, which just decimated sorghum crops, but we are continuing to work on sorghum silage.”

With the recent emergence of the sugar cane aphid last year, the sorghum crop in California took a big hit, but the project continues. Some of these projects can take two to three years to determine if it is a good fit into the California feeding systems.

“So this year, we are going to be taking a deeper look at the sorghum quality in terms of nutrition, fermentation characteristics, how people are putting this silage up, and how they are actually feeding it out,” Heguy said.

Photo Courtesy of University of California

Drought-Resistant Genes Research

Promising Drought-Resistant Genes Research Underway

By Brian German, Associate Editor


A team of UC researchers headed by Jeff Dahlberg, director of the UC Kearney Agriculture Research and Extension Center (KARE) in Parlier, Fresno County, is conducting critical drought-resistant genes research on plants. “I’m pretty excited,” Dahlberg said, “because California is the perfect place to study drought tolerance and we have never really delved into it too much because our agriculture is mostly irrigated. This is a perfect, perfect, place to do drought tolerance.”

“We are using sorghum because it is inherently drought tolerant, and we are searching for the genes that control how sorghum responds to drought,” explained Dahlberg, who has worked with sorghum during most of his career. “The idea is to identify the sorghum genes for drought tolerance and see if other cereal crops, and even other crops, have those genes but they are just turned off. I don’t believe that genes are just specific to single crops. I think that these genes are throughout most crops; we just don’t know how to turn them on or off,” Dahlberg noted.

“And so, I’m hoping that we can use sorghum as kind of a model for how these drought-resistant genes get turned on,” said Dahlberg, “and then use that model to relate it to other crops. We want to see if we can tweak them and get them to respond to drought in a different way.”

“I really am excited that we are able to develop these field drought nurseries because I think [our research] will have tremendous impact worldwide for helping to feed people,” he said.