Central Sierra
University of California
Central Sierra


Barn owls help clean up rodents naturally

Barn owl adult, photo by G. Rohman, grohman@gmail.com

The screech of a barn owl at night may be startling or annoying to some. But others may find their harsh calls satisfying, knowing that barn owls are out, feeding on pesky rodents.

They're fierce hunters with a voracious appetite for mice, voles, gophers, and rats. A family of five barn owls, including two adults and three young will feed on about 1,000 rodents during a season. When they nest twice in a year, that number doubles and you wind up with some good help on rodent control that's safe and free.

So, the next time you hear that eerie, rasping sound at night, don't panic. Instead, think about all the good the owls are doing. Even better, invite a family of barn owls to your property by building a nest box for them and creating a home.

Identifying barn owls. If you're lucky to spot one in an old barn where they're often found (hence their name), they have iconic white heart-shaped faces, white chests, and tan-colored backs with spots. Barn owls are nocturnal and can be recognized by their drawn-out rasping screech. Unlike other owls, they don't hoot. They often shriek when they leave their roost to hunt and make hissing and snapping sounds when startled.

Barn owls have excellent vision and hearing for finding prey in the dark and capturing it with their sharp talons and beaks. They're quiet hunters, flying close to their prey without being heard, due to specialized feathers, making them incredibly good predators. Barn owls are found world-wide and occupy a wide range of habitats, including natural, agricultural, and urban areas, but prefer to hunt in more open areas as opposed to forests. They readily hunt rodent pests in grape vineyards, alfalfa fields, and along levees, making them valuable allies for farmers.

How do you attract barn owls? Barn owls are cavity nesters, including cliffs, trees, and buildings such as barns, so they will readily use nest boxes. Plans for how to build nest boxes can be found in the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) booklet, Songbird, bat, and owl boxes. This handy guide also shows how to attract insectivorous birds and bats to help control insect pests naturally.  Barn owl boxes and plans can be found online or through local sources, such as G. Rohman (photographer). Barn owls begin nesting in February, so now is the time to put up a house before males and females select nest sites. Boxes should be mounted 10 feet off the ground on metal poles to prevent mammal predators from accessing the boxes and feeding on eggs or chicks.

Paint the boxes white to keep them cooler and help prevent weathering and face them northeast. Add some timothy hay for bedding (often sold in small bags in stores for rabbit feed). Wooden nest boxes are generally preferred over plastic ones. Fifty gallon drums can also be used; just remove the top, retaining a lip so the chicks don't fall out, add some hay, and hoist it up on a rafter in a barn and secure it well with a chain. Avoid disturbing nest boxes during the breeding season (February through August), as barn owls will often abandon nests if disturbed while nesting. 

Barn owl house on a pole. (Photo: G. Rohman)

Who moves into the nest box? A family of barn owls. Females generally lay four to seven eggs from February to April, which hatch in about 30 days. While they incubate the eggs, the males bring food to the nest. The baby owls fledge in about 10 weeks, but stay around the nest until fall, when they wander off, usually within 30 miles of where they were born. Sometimes a second clutch of eggs is laid in May. Barn owls do not migrate, so tend to stay in an area year-round and will reoccupy a nest box the following year. They generally forage about one to three miles from their roosts. They are only mildly territorial in that they will defend their nests if you get too close. This means that you can put up several nest boxes in an area and expect occupancy from several families. Barn owls generally only live for about two years. Great horned owls are the fiercest predator of adult barn owls (and collisions with cars).

Barn owl bringing prey back to the nest box. (Photo: G. Rohman)

What are they eating? The favored prey of barn owls is rodents, including voles and gophers. Like other owls, they often swallow their prey whole and then undigested bones and fur are coughed up (regurgitated) as owl pellets. These pellets can be dissected and prey readily identified by the skeletons left behind. Farmers appreciate owls and other raptors because they feed on rodents that can damage their crops and irrigation systems (Wildlife Survey).

UC ANR researchers, including Roger Baldwin, UC Cooperative Extension vertebrate pest control specialist, are currently evaluating the economic impact of barn owls for rodent control in agricultural lands. It is important to note that rodents reproduce rapidly so barn owls cannot always keep up with rodent outbreaks and other methods of control might be needed to prevent crop damage (Rodent Control). But, every rodent a barn owl takes is one less we have to deal with!

How about maintenance? Barn owl boxes need to be cared for and cleaned once a year during fall or winter (October to December) as the pellets can quickly fill up a nest box. Doors for accessing the inside of the boxes need to be secured, hinges lubricated, and mounting structures checked during annual inspections. Avoid breathing unhealthy dust when cleaning the house and always make sure no one is home. Although this takes time, the pellets cleaned out might have added value. A Yolo County farmer mentioned he has a buyer for his pellets, which are used for science projects where students dissect them to learn about skeletons and barn owl diets. He read his recent owl pellet invoice noting, “The pellets are graded from small at 10 cents each to premium at 20 cents each and I sold over 100. Barn owls are great!”

Barn owl pellets. (Photo: Chuck Ingels)
Barn owl with a gopher on a nest box. (Photo: G. Rohman)
Posted on Monday, November 13, 2017 at 8:36 AM

Military veterans and beginning farmers invited to poultry workshops

Egg-laying chickens pose at the UC Davis Pastured Poultry Farm. Photo by Trina Wood
Prospective, beginner or intermediate farmers interested in raising poultry flocks on pasture or free-range are invited to attend poultry workshops. The lessons will apply to both egg-laying hens and broilers. UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and the Farmer Veteran Coalition have partnered to provide training for military veterans who are embarking on careers in farming, but all farmers are welcome to the workshops.

Workshops will be held in Davis, San Diego and Santa Rosa.

“California has the largest number of farmer veterans in the country, with over 1,000,” said Michael O'Gorman, executive director of Farmer Veteran Coalition, which supports military veterans with the resources they need to launch successful farm businesses. “Pastured poultry operations are a growing and profitable sector of California agriculture, and FVC is excited to partner with the University of California to provide trainings on this burgeoning field!”

A four-day workshop covering several aspects of pasture-poultry production will be held Dec. 4-7, 2017, from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., at UC Davis.

“In addition to the more traditional topics such as flock husbandry, biosecurity, food safety, nutrition or equipment needed, we will discuss records management, marketing options and using mobile apps to capture better data,” said Maurice Pitesky, UC Cooperative Extension poultry specialist in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, who is organizing the workshops.

The poultry workshops will take a participatory learning approach, rotating between presentations, scenario discussions, Q & A sessions and hands-on demonstrations. 

During the demonstrations, beginning farmers will have a chance to perform health and welfare assessments of laying hens, on-site Salmonella enteritidis testing, egg candling and safe handling.

Speakers and facilitators will be experts from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, California Department of Food and Agriculture and UC Cooperative Extension.

Each day will include 90 minutes of networking opportunities with other beginning farmers. The registration fee is $80 and includes lunch. To register, visit http://ucanr.edu/newpoultryfarmer.

Beginning farmers will gain insightful information on successfully raising poultry flocks on pasture, as well as practical expertise, connections with other farmers and professionals in the field, and better awareness and knowledge of resources and opportunities available.

One-day workshops are being planned for Jan. 17, 2018, in San Diego, May 16 in Santa Rosa and Aug. 8 in Davis. More information will be available at http://ucanr.edu/newpoultryfarmer.

To better communicate with backyard poultry enthusiasts and to protect flocks from disease outbreaks, people who raise backyard poultry are encouraged to participate in a voluntary survey for the UCCE California Poultry Census at http://ucanr.edu/sites/poultry/California_Poultry_Census. If there is an outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza, for example, UCCE will notify participants by email and warn them to keep their birds indoors.


Related links

Pastured Poultry Farm website http://ucanr.edu/sites/poultry/UC_Davis_Pasture_Poultry_and_Innovation_Farm

California Poultry Census survey http://ucanr.edu/sites/poultry/California_Poultry_Census

UC Food Observer's Q & A with Maurice Pitesky http://ucfoodobserver.com/2016/04/14/california-poultry-update 

Posted on Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at 1:52 PM

Joining forces to promote child health and wellness

According to current statistics, approximately 40 percent of school-age children in the U.S. are overweight or obese. This statistic is reflected in rising rates of diabetes, pre-diabetes, and heart disease risk factors. Nearly one-quarter of all children are pre-diabetic or diabetic at the time when they leave high school, a figure that has increased dramatically in the last decade. Dental problems, the other very common health problem of youth, carry the potential for current and future pain, infection, and tooth loss. Although low-income children and children of color are at particular risk for both conditions, risk is unacceptably high for all children.

It is important to note that these all-too-common conditions share the same critical risk factor: consumption of sugary foods and beverages. Unknown to many, over half of the added sugar consumed by children is ingested in liquid form—soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, and other pre-sweetened beverages including iced teas and others. For teenagers sugar-sweetened beverages are the single largest source of calories in their daily diet. Further, research has demonstrated that liquid sugar is more highly related to obesity than added sugar coming in solid form. 

To improve the medical and dental health of our children we need to help children and families find ways to reduce their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Offering children easy access to water stations and other free tap water sources in childcare settings, schools and recreational facilities provides a healthful alternative to sugary beverages.

Fortunately research is being conducted to find effective ways to reduce children's sweetened beverage consumption. 

  • Reduce provision of sweetened beverages in the school, after school and childcare settings. UC ANR's Nutrition Policy Institute (NPI) has documented dramatic reductions in sugary beverage consumption after the enactment of state restrictions on the sale of highly sugared beverages in California schools and childcare. While much has been accomplished, more can be done to see that these kinds of restrictions are fully maintained.
  • Offering children easy access to water stations and other free tap water sources in childcare settings, schools and recreational facilities provides a healthful alternative to sugary beverages.
  • Encourage strong nutrition education programs for children. UC Cooperative Extension's EFNEP and statewide SNAP-Ed programs have been leading efforts to educate children on the value of a healthy diet including the risk of consuming too many sugary beverages.
  • Similarly, educating families on healthy eating and on the benefits of reducing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption can support and reinforce the messages to children in the school-based programs.

A consistent message on sugary beverages delivered to families by dental and medical health practitioners, in tandem with other educational and community efforts, can substantially benefit children's health. As respected community members, dental and medical health practitioners are in a position to deliver consistent messages to families and also to work with community agencies and groups, including UC ANR and its affiliates, to initiate and support efforts to reduce children's and families' sugary beverage consumption. Our children deserve a healthy start.

For more information, see:

Posted on Monday, November 6, 2017 at 5:00 PM

Monthly news roundup: October 2017

Burning question: Can California prevent the next wildfire?
Glen Martin, California Magazine, Oct. 31, 2017
The incentive for city council members and county supervisors is to encourage development and expand tax bases, said UC ANR researcher and UC Berkeley professor Scott Stephens. As a result, homes are often built in wild land “interface” areas with extreme fire risk. “UC Cooperative maintains programs in every California county, so we already have a network of educators and communicators,” Stephens said. “We could coordinate with state agencies and the governor to create and implement wildfire safety and response programs that could be very effective. And because the basic structure is already in place, it wouldn't be very expensive.”

UC Merced County Extension programs boosted by local endowment
Todd Fitchette, Western Farm Press, Oct. 31, 2017
Several years ago, UCCE advisor David Doll came up with a plan to crowd source some funding to help the county Extension office pay for projects that otherwise fell to the wayside as slim sources of revenue found other priorities. “Over the years there has been a consistent erosion of base funding for our services, not only from UC, but from county and federal governments,” Doll said. Through his contacts with almond growers in his county, Doll secured about $14,000 from less than 10 donors now part of an endowment which the Merced County Extension can budget annually in perpetuity.

Most USDA new farmer trainees still in the industry, survey finds
Tim Hearden, Capital Press, Oct. 31, 2017
More than half the participants in new farmer training projects the USDA has spent more than $150 million on since 2008 are still working in agriculture, a group's survey has found. The survey's findings should encourage the UC to seek more grant funding for similar projects elsewhere, said Jennifer Sowerwine, an extension specialist based at UC Berkeley who was on an advisory board for the USDA's evaluation. “As the metropolitan agriculture and food system specialist, I see several opportunities ... to expand (the UC's) offerings to support aspiring and beginning urban and peri-urban farmers,” Sowerwine said.

Marin sudden oak death infections surge
Richard Halstead, Marin Independent Journal, Oct. 28, 2017
The sudden oak death infection rate in Marin has doubled to more than 21 percent since 2015, according to Matteo Garbelotto, UC Cooperative Extension specialist and director of the UC Berkeley Forest Pathology and Mycology Laboratory.

UC Davis is producing a more natural organic egg, but how does it taste?
Sally Schilling, Capital Public Radio, Oct. 27, 2017
UC Cooperative Extension poultry specialist Maurice Pitesky says the USDA may stop allowing the organic chicken egg producers to use a synthetic protein supplement, called methionine. His group of researchers is trying an alternative protein source: black soldier fly larvae. “This might be a way to move away from that synthetic methionine and try something that the chickens naturally have an inclination to eat,” Pitesky said. He held a tasting event to determine if the larvae influence egg flavor.

Restoring California's ability to recharge groundwater a more cost-effective drought strategy
Judy Corbett, California Economic Summit, Oct. 26, 2017
Last year, UC ANR and the California Economic Summit brought together 25 innovative land use decision makers and 25 water experts to determine how they might better work together to implement groundwater recharge policies and projects. Their conclusion, land use and water supply entities should reach out to flood control agencies to jointly identify and preserve lands for the dual purpose of recharging groundwater recharge and providing flood protection.

We need novel ways to stave off wildfires
Francie Diep, City Lab, Oct. 26, 2017
Pacific Standard spoke with three California residents, all of whom have interesting, well-supported, yet often little-known ideas for wildfire prevention strategies. One of the interviewees was UCCE specialist Max Moritz. He said people need to start thinking of wildfires the way they do tornadoes and earthquakes: as inevitable natural disasters.

Non-GMO food labels are incredibly misleading—and could be harming you and the environment
Michael Tabb, Quartz Media, Oct. 26, 2017
One recent diet fad is to avoid genetically modified food. It's led to an sharp increase in non-GMO labels. According to Pam Ronald, UC Cooperative Extension specialist whose husband is an organic farmer, farms going non-GMO to meet consumer demand are causing major damage. “These non-GMO labels have proliferated, and they're really a problem,” Ronald told Quartz. “Because there's no regulation, they can just spray anything they want. So what's happening is… they're going back to using [far] more toxic compounds. And I think that's really a disservice to the consumer to market it as somehow being more healthy—when of course, it's not, and it's also more harmful to the environment.”

Milk, salads, kitty litter, condoms: ‘Non-GMO labels sow confusion
Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 25, 2017
Clover Sonoma to jump into the trend of labeling products as free of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which some consumers fear could cause health and environmental damage, despite firm rebuttals from the country's top scientific and medical organizations. "It's like unicorn-free milk," said Alison L. Van Eenennaam, UC Cooperative Extension genomics specialist. "There aren't any GMOs in milk anyway."

My beef with killing the meet industry
Matthew Hable, The Lumberjack (Humboldt State student newspaper), Oct. 24, 2017
Eliminating the meat industry would do more harm than good to our planet. “Agriculture cannot be sustainable without animal agriculture,” said Frank Mitloehner, UC Cooperative Extension specialist. “That is something I'm sure of.”

Don't get fooled by the calendar. October is deadly month for fires in California
Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler, Sacramento Bee, Oct. 24, 2017
Although the risks from new fires have abated in Northern California in recent days, officials cautioned that the perils haven't been completely extinguished despite the light rains that swept through the area last week. “In two days, it'll be as dry as it was before the rains, roughly,” said Bill Stewart, the co-director of UC Berkeley's Center for Fire Research and Outreach.

California needs to rethink urban fire risk after wine country tragedy
Max Moritz, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 24, 2017
The Northern California fires revealed that we have key gaps in our policy and planning related to assessing risk in fire-prone environments. An essential step is to shift our perspective from a focus on hazard to one that more comprehensively includes human vulnerabilities.

Trees and People: SOD Workshop
Bill Pramuk, Napa Valley Register, Oct. 23, 2017
The Sudden Oak Death blitz in Napa County delivered good news. The county had a very low infection rate. UCCE specialist Matteo Garbelotto will present the Blitz results and practical information at a free session Oct. 28 in Napa.

We're with you: Australian wine producers' message to California
Tyne Logan, ABC Australia, Oct. 23, 2017
Australia's two peak wine bodies have sent a letter offering support and condolences to the Californian wine industry following deadly wildfires. The wildfires have caused significant loss to those directly involved but the industry as a whole would not suffer big production losses, said Jim Lapsley, of the UC ANR Agricultural Issues Center. He said the biggest impact for the Californian wine industry would be on the high-value wine, for which the region is most renowned.

Sudden oak death moves into urban locales in East Bay and on Peninsula
Lisa Krieger, Mercury News, Oct. 22, 2017
A highly contagious disease that has already killed millions of rural California trees is spreading into urban areas in the East Bay and on the Peninsula, according to a major new University of California survey. Once-untouched areas must now “face disease impacts and management decisions,” said UC Cooperative Extension specialist Matteo Garbelotto, who heads the Forest Pathology and Mycology Laboratory at UC Berkeley. While it does not mean that all oaks in those areas will die, it indicates that they are at elevated risk.

Experts call for changes in wake of deadly wildfires in Northern California
Cheri Carlson, Ventura County Star, Oct. 22, 2017
California is ahead of a lot of the country with respect to preparing to handle wildfire, said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist with the University of California Cooperative Extension. “But we still have a lot to learn,” he said. Do the building codes already in place work under such severe conditions, and how do you get people out in time? “That's what we're going to be asking ourselves as we pick up the pieces and look at what happened here,” Moritz said.

Do you care if your fish dinner was raised humanely? Animal advocates say you should
Clare Leschin-Hoar, NPR The Salt, Oct. 20, 2017
Mercy for Animals is beginning to lay the groundwork for a campaign that will target the aquaculture industry and shine a light on the conditions in which finfish like salmon, tilapia, catfish, trout, pangasius and other species are raised.  Thrying to shift the aquaculture industry won't be easy. The vast majority of the farmed fish Americans eat comes from countries like China, Indonesia, Canada, Norway, Chile and Ecuador. "Welfare rights are primarily a Western phenomenon," says UC Cooperative Extension specialist Fred Conte. "You go to Central America or China and you're not going to find welfare standards."

What's to blame for wine country fires? PG&E isn't the only suspect
Editorial Board, Sacramento Bee, Oct. 20, 2017
Max Moritz, a fire specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension, compared the Tubbs Fire to the Santa Ana wind-driven wildfires that regularly rip down the canyons into Southern California suburbs, with the added twist of bigger, denser Northern California vegetation, dried like mega-kindling. Such fires have not been the norm in cooler, damper NorCal, but the occurrence of such a monster here this year “forces us to consider that this kind of fire could happen in lots of places,” Moritz said.

Why were California's widlfires so deadly? The answer lies in the forest
Eric Holst, Environmental Defense Fund, Oct. 20, 2017
In a Q&A article with the Environmental Defense Fund, UCCE farm advisor emeritus Greg Giusti adi the driving force of the California widlfires was wind. Other factors responsible for the devastation include 100 years of fire suppression, early and mid-20th century logging converting old growth forests to more densely populated stands of trees, suburban and rural sprawl spreading out into wildlands, and programs and actions addressing fire prevention relying too heavily on fire suppression.

Rain brings relief for burned soil, but expert worried about runoff
Ashley Tressel, Ukiah Daily Journal, Oct. 20, 2017
UCCE Mendocino County advisor emeritus Greg Giusti believes recent rain was enough to get some seeds germinating, so Mendocino County might begin to see some green in the next couple of weeks, if the weather stays warm.

Sudden oak death likely exacerbated deadly Northern California wildfires
Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 20, 2017
A dramatic increase this year in the number of oaks, manzanita and native plants infected by sudden oak death likely helped spread the massive fires that raged through the North Bay, according to Matteo Garbelotto, UCCE forest pathology and mycology specialist. In a recently released study he reported that 37 percent of the trees sampled in fire-ravaged eastern Sonoma County — prior to the fires — were infected by sudden oak death.

Urban conflagration: Fire scientist on climate change and what makes California's wildfires different
Amy Goodman, Democracy Now, Oct. 20, 2017
“Lots of trends that we've seen over the last several decades in fire have been related back to climate change,” said UCCE specialist Max Moritz. “There's pretty conclusive evidence for a link to climate change for many of the fires that we've seen in the last couple of decades. And the trends match up with what we expect from climate change and from our models.”

Citrus crisis
Elizabeth Lorenz, Palo Alto Weekly, Oct. 19, 2017
Asian citrus psyllid has been found in eastern Santa Clara County as well as other Bay Area counties. It is considered established in Southern California. "So far, the term 'eradication' has only been used early on in the invasion and in agricultural production areas. Residential treatments are voluntary but highly recommended by the state at this time,” said Andrew Sutherland, UC Cooperative Extension IPM advisor the San Francisco Bay Area.

Why California wildfires are infernos in October
Lesley McClurg, KQED Science, Oct. 19, 2017
It typically doesn't rain in California all summer. “By October California has dried out,” said University of California, Berkeley fire expert William Stewart. “So every hillside is basically fuel waiting to burn.”

“Like a blowtorch”: Powerful winds fueled tornadoes of flame in Tubbs Fire
Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 18, 2017
The Tubbs Fire was driven by a steady 40 mph winds. “Just like water flows from higher to lower elevation, winds flow down a pressure gradient as they go from high pressure to low pressure,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist with the UC Cooperative Extension. “When they get concentrated, like through a mountain pass, they will speed up, like a river going through a narrow channel.”

Northern California fire victims may want to rebuild. But can they find someone to do it?
Stuart Leavenworth and Anita Chabria, Sacramento Bee, Oct. 18, 2017
Families that lost their homes in the Northern California fires will be competing for contractors to rebuild. “It was hard to get workers before the fires, because the living costs in Sonoma and Napa are so much higher than elsewhere,” said Philip Martin, a labor economist UC Davis. “Most people would say it is even going to get even harder to find workers after the fires.”

How California's North Bay fires became the state's deadliest
Tara Lohan, NewsDeeply, Oct. 17, 2017
Nearly two weeks after more than a dozen devastating wildfires erupted across Northern California, experts are beginning to ponder what happened.  “We don't know what triggered the ignition, but once a fire ignited the real story is that there was receptive vegetation everywhere that could carry that fire,” said Yana Valachovic, forest advisor in Humboldt County. It was “extreme fire weather,” said Yana Valachovic, forest advisor in Humboldt County. The driving force of the fire was wind that gusted up to 70 miles per hour and pushed embers a mile head of the fire, she said. “It's a lot like being in a horizontal hailstorm of coals.”

Northern California is facing catastrophic wildfires more typically seen in the south. Experts aren't sure why
Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 16, 2017
"These kinds of fires and the losses are very uncharacteristic of that part of the world," UC Cooperative Extension specialist Max Moritz said of the firestorm that ignited in Northern California last week, killing dozens of people and torching thousands of homes. "It has all the signatures of a massive, Southern California Santa Ana wind event.”

Devastated suburb was exempt from fire rules
Doug Smith and Nin Agrawal, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 15, 2017
California fire officials developed hazard maps in the 2000s that for the first time tied building codes to geographies based on risk. Max Moritz, UC Cooperative Extension fire scientist, said the maps were an important step forward in assessing fire danger. But the Coffey Park catastrophe has shown that the methodology, and the law underlying it, were too narrow. “With a lot of hazard mapping, once you get into a density of development, it's mapped urban and it's considered unburnable,” Moritz said. “From its core, our whole approach to fire behavior modeling, we are not talking about burning in urbanized environments.”

Firefighters begin to feel relief in Napa County wildfires
Maria Sestito, Napa Valley Register, Oct. 14, 2017
Firefighters from all over California, bordering states, Mexico, Canada and Australia have been pitching in to control the wildfires in Northern California. “They basically just keep putting more and more people on,” said William Stewart, co-director of the UC Center for Fire Research and Outreach at UC Berkeley. “They're trying to figure out how to rotate people out as fast as they can.” Stewart said the fires were the biggest and most complicated ever in Northern California. “I've never seen anything like this.”

California blazes are part of a larger and hotter picture, fire researchers say
Geoff Brumfiel, Valley Public Radio, Oct. 13, 2017
In Northern California,a wet spring caused the hills to grow thick with grasses and shrubs. That foliage then died and dried out over the hottest summer in California history. The winds caused small fires to grow extremely quickly. "Everybody from firefighters down to homeowners has commented on just how incredibly fast the fires were moving," says Max Moritz, UC Cooperative Extension specialist. "That's really a wind-related phenomenon."

Cannabis farmers get no help from UC farm advisors
Hanford Sentinel, Oct. 12, 2017
UC Cooperative Extension is a source of information on a wide variety of agricultural crops, but not cannabis. "We are prohibited by law from making any comments on marijuana,” says Tulare/Kings farm advisor Kevin Day. Humboldt County farm advisor Yana Valachovic said UC gets federal funding and the word has come down some time ago "not to get involved.” However, UCCE specialist Van Butsic says “we can track what goes in the fields and in greenhouses but not in those big warehouses" in the future. As for acreage, he expects most marijuana farms will be an acre or less and the statewide total may come to 50,000 to 100,000 acres.

Spending more on fire suppression won't reduce losses
Scott Stephens, San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 12, 2017
Australia, in contrast to California, has developed a more effective “Prepare, stay and defend, or leave early” policy. With this approach, trained residents decide whether they will stay and actively defend their well-prepared property or leave early before a fire threatens them. By examining the Australian model, we might approach a more sustainable coexistence with fire. However, some California communities are so vulnerable that a “Prepare and leave early” strategy might be the only option.

How this week's wildfire outbreak became one of the deadliest in California's history
J.J. Gallagher, ABC News, Oct. 12, 2017
The Tubbs blaze may be one of the deadliest wildfires in California history. "When a fire moves that quickly, there really is no evacuation notification system that can keep up," said Scott Stephens, a UC ANR fire science researcher at the University of California Berkeley. "We're talking about just minutes."

California wildfires: Why have they been so destructive?
Julie Turkewitz, New York Times, Oct. 11, 2017
Parched landscapes can increase fire size and duration, said Scott L. Stephens, a UC ANR researcher of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley. But it is important to note, he added, that climate change is not necessarily causing specific fires to occur. Wildfires are a natural part of a forest's life cycle and have been part of the state's history since long before anyone called it California.

Wildfires destroy at least 6 Northern California wineries
Eric Chaney, The Weather Channel, Oct. 11, 2017
Any of this year's harvest still in the fields is threatened not only by flames, but also by smoke, which can ruin grapes that have not yet been picked. Still, most of this year's crop was already picked and next year's fruit won't likely be affected, UCCE specialist Anita Oberholster told the AP. "Even if wines now were heavily affected by smoke, it doesn't carry over to the next season, only in the fruit itself," she said.

What needs to be done to stop wildfire in drought-killed forests
Matt Weiser, Water Deeply, Oct. 11, 2017
UCCE specialist Van Butsic, who recently published a study that proposes a new way to manage forests, is featured in a Q&A format. Bustic discusses how California forests are impacted by the drought, how much prescribed fire is needed to bring forests back to a healthy state, and laws and procedures followed by state and federal agencies on fire suppression.

How the deadly Tubbs Fire blitzed Santa Rosa, overwhelming residents and firefighters
Jill Tucker, Lizzie Johnson, Joaquin Pamomino and Kurtis Alexander, San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 11, 2017
The narrow path of destruction westward from the Napa Valley to Calistoga was “a classic example of wind-driven fire,” said Scott Stephens, a UC ANR researchers and fire science professor at UC Berkeley. He said a canyon that slopes downhill on the outskirts of Santa Rosa allowed the blaze to churn into something much bigger right before it collided with homes and businesses. “The winds were just ferocious, and by chance, and very sad chance, they happened to vector the fire right toward the city of Santa Rosa,” Stephens said. “It doesn't surprise me that the eastern areas were hit on the urban-wildland interface, but the fire penetrated the city by three-fourths of a mile or more.”

Here's why October is California's most dangerous month for wildfires
Jennifer Calfas, Time Magazine, Oct. 10, 2017
With a combination of dry fuel and fast winds this late in the season, “there's a very big chance you're going to get big, terrible fires,” said UCCE specialist Max Moritz. “All you need is ignition and you have the perfect storm, really.”

Tracking the damage of a disaster-in-progress
H. Claire Brown and Joe Fassler, New Food Economy, Oct. 10, 2017
Smoke taint in wine grapes is a condition that makes them unpalatable and not viable for sale. “The fruit gets tainted with various phenolic compounds and creosotes [that] give these smoke flavors that aren't pleasant,” says Glenn McGourty, a Mendocino-based farm advisor for the University of California Extension. “If they tasted like bacon, it would be great, but they don't taste like bacon. They taste like ash trays.”

UC, nonprofit receive $500,000 grant to start entrepreneurs' network
Tim Hearden, Capital Press, Oct. 4, 2017
The University of California's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources and AgStart will use the money to cultivate the Verde Innovation Network for Entrepreneurship, which will provide assistance for businesses. “We want to make sure every Californian has the support system to take a novel idea and commercialize a new product or start a new business,” Glenda Humiston, the UC's vice president for ag and natural resources, said in a statement. “They don't have to be a university inventor. They could be a farmer or a young person.”

UC Riverside to take avocado breeding program global
David Downey, The Riverside Press-Enterprise, Oct. 2, 2017
The avocado industry is confined to cool coastal counties. If a variety could grow on a wide scale in the San Joaquin Valley, it would be a game changer. “That's one of my dreams

Posted on Wednesday, November 1, 2017 at 8:38 AM

Digging Deep: Exploring the diversity of soils in the Sacramento Valley

Participants gather around the first soil pit of the field tour, as Toby O'Geen provides a brief natural history of the land.

Not more than three months on the job and Konrad Mathesius is hard at work bringing farmers together to discuss the unique challenges that Sacramento Valley farmers face. As the new UCCE agronomy advisor for Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties, his role is designed specifically to help growers with their crop issues – pests, disease and fertility – but with a strong background in soil science, Mathesius hopes to shed light on the diversity of soils in the region and the unique management considerations that each necessitates.

In hopes of highlighting this diversity of soils and encouraging growers to dig a little deeper to better inform their management practices, Konrad enlisted the help of UCCE soil resource specialist Toby O'Geen to lead a field tour of three major soils in the southern Sacramento Valley. The event included three pit stops on two Yolo County farms and brought out a diversity of participants from USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service agents, to resource conservationists, to farmers and crop advisors.

Kicking things off at Rominger Brother's Ranch -- a diversified family farm in Winters that grows everything from wine grapes to processing tomatoes to rice, wheat, corn, onions, alfalfa and hay -- O'Geen took the audience on a journey back in time, describing the rich natural history of the former floodplain that has given rise to the rich, productive soils that support California agriculture today. After introducing himself as a pedologist, or a scientist who studies the nature and properties of soil, he went on to introduce the five soil forming factors and their role in molding initial (1) parent material (i.e. rocks), under the influence of (2) climate, (3) topography and (4) organisms and over a given period of (5) time into soils. 

Yolo County farmers and UC Cooperative Extension specialist Toby O'Geen, right,peer deep into the processes that formed the land just beneath their feet.

Proving that soil scientists take the term “pit stop” literally, Mathesius shifted the conversation to a 1.5-meter deep hole in the ground, dug out the day before with a back hoe. Step by step, he walked participants through the process of analyzing a soil pit – cleaning the face, identifying horizons or individual layers and using the senses to assess soil properties and determine function. As he struck the face of the pit with a rock hammer, an audible difference was detected between the surface layers and the subsurface. 

Working backwards from the sound, he explained that the subsurface was significantly harder, which he attributed to a finer texture and ultimately identified as a clay pan, a restrictive layer that prevents roots from penetrating deeply and has the capacity to waterlog soils, due to poor drainage. O'Geen offered some tangible advice as to how to manage these soils, quipping that a deep rip would be no better than cutting butter with a knife (eventually it all just settles back into place) while likening a slip plow to a giant shank that just inverts the soil, mixing things to about a depth of 6 feet and permanently eliminating the problem.

UCCE agronomy advisor Konrad Mathesius, left, talks soil texture and water-holding capacity.

From there, Mathesius segued into a hands-on exercise to determine the soil texture, or percent distribution of various size particles, allowing participants to work on their pottery skills making balls and ribbons with the clay-rich soils.  Discussing the many functions that soil texture controls, led the conversation down a rabbit-hole around water holding capacity and how to calculate the range of plant available water for your soil.

With the demos out of the way, they voyaged to the next pre-dug pit, bringing participants face to face with the harsh reality of soil heterogeneity. Just 300 feet away and it was as if we had ventured into another environment altogether, yet these soils formed in the same place, under the same climate and similar vegetation, but in a completely different time with slightly different starting material.

By changing just a couple of the ingredients in the special sauce of soil formation the results are completely different featuring a clay dominant surface soil and entirely different water management challenges. And these aren't just any clays, but a special class that swell and shrink as they wet and dry, oftentimes shearing roots under the pressure and creating a hospitable environment for disease to thrive.  O'Geen suggested trying to keep them in the sweet spot where they are consistently moist, but not wet, and never allowed to dry out. Unfortunately, there is no precise measurement to that formula, “you just have to be almost like an artist. It's a lot of feel to it and the numbers sometimes just don't work out. It just comes with years of experience. Its one of those native intelligence things that you just have to feel your way through,” he noted.

Up close and personal with a soil pit, showing participants how to use basic tools of observation to assess soils!

Caravanning 20 miles back towards Davis, the tour arrived at the third and final pit, located at Triad Farms, a tomato operation in Dixon. Well-drained, young and fertile, Yolo loam soils are the poster children of agriculture, owing in large part to regular deposits of silts from past flood events. With not many management challenges to speak of, conversation immediately shifted towards an undocumented challenge that farmers on the eastern side of the Sacramento Valley are all too familiar with – the unavailability of potassium, even under intensive fertilization regimes. While the jury is still out on the cause and while it contradicts what soil scientists expect to find in those regions, possible explanations were tossed around and O'Geen used the opportunity to stress the importance of speaking up about things growers or advisors see going on in their area. Turns out the USDA-NRCS is working on updating its inventory of soil surveys, documenting soils across the nation and is currently seeking input on what's working for growers and where things are differing on the ground.

Ultimately, in closing, Mathesius called for more engagement between the university, extension and growers. O'Geen reminded everyone that “You can really learn a lot by digging a hole, looking at stuff, and developing theories.  Sometimes you're wrong, but they're kind of fun to talk about."

Posted on Monday, October 30, 2017 at 3:03 PM

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