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Keeping Our Environment Healthy Blog

'Real' Christmas trees support farmers and the environment

Most real Christmas trees sold in California are raised on farms, creating jobs and boosting the economies in rural areas. 

That's just one reason UC Cooperative Extension advisor Lynn Wunderlich encourages the use of fresh-cut Christmas trees during the holiday season.

Visiting choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms is a fun family tradition that supports farmers, local economies and the environment. (Photo: USDA)

"This is an age-old debate," Wunderlich said. The American Christmas Tree Association says that PVC used in artificial trees is recyclable. If a household decorates with the same artificial tree for at least four years, the carbon footprint will be smaller than that of a household that purchases a real tree every year.

But the impact goes deeper. Wunderlich points out that artificial trees are mainly made in Asia. They have to travel a great distance to the U.S. compared to an American-farmed tree, eating up natural resources during transport. "Buy American," Wunderlich says.

Besides, there are the transcendent benefits of real Christmas trees. Farmed trees provide open space and wildlife habitat during the off-season, and fill the home with a natural pine scent during holidays.

Their role in sequestering carbon is aided by a production practice used by many farmers, called "stump culture."

"They use the same root system to regrow another tree, so the trees are regenerated," Wunderlich said. "Trees are replanted regularly in other farming culture. Christmas trees sequester carbon. Nearly a ton of carbon per acre of trees, depending on species and number of trees planted on the land."

While artificial trees end up landfills or energy-intense recycling plants, live trees are biodegradable. They can be naturally recycled by composting or shredded to use as mulch. Many communities offer curb-side pickup in the days after Christmas.

While farmed trees can be purchased on tree lots, home improvement stores, even grocery and drug stores, Wunderlich says a trip to a choose-and-cut tree farm is an enchanting family outing. Many Christmas tree farmers also provide food, crafts, activities and visits with Santa.

“Families can visit the farmer year after year as their children grow, so that's part of the experience,” Wunderlich said.

Resources:

The California Christmas Tree Association maintains a directory of choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms around state.

Some National Forests allow Christmas tree cutting with a permit. Read more here.

 

Posted on Monday, December 4, 2017 at 9:25 AM

Chowchilla dairy farmer named 2017 Conservation Agriculture Farmer Innovator

Michael McRee of Chowchilla is honored as 2017 CASI Farmer Innovator.
Chowchilla dairy farmer Michael McRee has been named the 2017 Conservation Agriculture Farmer Innovator by the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation (CASI) Center for his innovation and leadership in the development and use of conservation agriculture systems on his farm. 

“Mike McRee has been extremely willing to share his experiences with others and has graciously hosted numerous public field days at his dairy farm over the years,” said Jeffrey Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist and CASI founder.

The dairy producer, who milks about 2,000 cows at his farm west of Chowchilla, double crops his own dairy forage along with tomatoes and alfalfa crops on about 850 acres. After his pioneering efforts with strip-till – some of the very earliest in the entire San Joaquin Valley – McRee soon found that the conservation agriculture practice saved him time and money as he had anticipated, and yielded other important benefits for his farm as well.

McRee noticed improved water-holding capacity of his soil since working with strip-tillage, as well as increased consistency in the soil's ability to absorb water, mellower soil overall, and more consistent crop stands and yields overall.

Improved soil tilth, increased soil organic matter and earthworms give him consistent yields year to year without extreme highs or lows.

McRee's quest to improve the performance of his silage production systems began back in 2007.

He readily admits that he faced challenges early on.

He tried no-till wheat, but was limited in this effort by hard, compacted soils. Having the right equipment is a key to the whole endeavor, McRee points out.

He has worked with local NRCS partners and the EQIP program, which assists growers with implementation of practices to improve our soil, water and air resources. 

Following a great deal of consultation with other growers and experimentation, he developed a very successful strip-tillage system for his silage corps. The change was spurred initially by his interest in reducing the number of times he had to drive a tractor through his fields to save fuel and labor.

He now does fall primary tillage using a Wilcox 7-shank subsoil ripper with a crumbler. Vertical tillage has replaced disc plowing to achieve a smooth seedbed without turning the soil over.

After winter forage is harvested, preparation for corn silage planting begins. McRee explains that he rips the soil down 13 to 14 inches and uses coulters to prepare the seedbed. After pre-irrigation, he uses the Dawn Pluribus strip-till row unit, a tool that preps an eight-inch band of soil for planting. Using GPS, he can run his tractor 6 to 7 mph for this pass.

“With three passes, I can do everything,” McRee said.

“Additionally, McRee has recently installed subsurface drip irrigation that utilizes dairy lagoon water for his silage crops,” said Priscilla Baker, NRCS soil conservationist in Madera. “This project is in partnership with the organization Sustainable Conservation.”

McRee received the award Oct. 13 at the annual meeting of the San Joaquin Valley Resource Conservation Districts held at the Wool Growers' Restaurant in Los Banos. 

In 2005, the University of California, NRCS and the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation (CASI) Center established the Conservation Agriculture Farmer Innovator Award as a means for providing greater visibility to conservation agriculture pioneers in California. The criteria for this award are demonstrated innovation and leadership in the development, refinement and use of conservation agriculture systems within the California crop production environment. 

For more information about conservation agriculture systems, visit http://casi.ucanr.edu.

 

 

Posted on Friday, December 1, 2017 at 12:21 PM

Videos show hikers how to avoid Black Friday stampedes on park trails

In a new series of videos, a cow puppet provides advice for hikers from UC Cooperative Extension on sharing open space with livestock.

While Americans traditionally beat a path to the malls the day after Thanksgiving, many opt out of shopping on Black Friday to enjoy the outdoors. In regional parks and other open spaces, hikers may encounter crowds of a different sort – cattle grazing with their calves. A 1,200-pound cow blocking the path can be daunting.

With a little patience and understanding, people who hike, bike and horseback ride can coexist peacefully with the cattle, according to Sheila Barry, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor in Santa Clara County.

For happier trails, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources has produced a series of videos that show hikers how they can amicably share open space with their beefy neighbors. In a two-minute video, a black cow puppet with a furry white face describes how to politely coax cows to moo-ove aside without spurring a Black Friday stampede.

“We wanted to produce videos that are entertaining as well as informative,” Barry said. 

The cow pun-filled video also describes the ecosystem services cattle provide by consuming nearly their body weight in plants. By grazing, cows manage the vegetation, reducing wildfire fuel, increasing water capture and promoting the diversity of native grasses and wildflowers.

In “Sharing open spaces with livestock,” the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources livestock experts give four simple tips for safely sharing open space with cows on the trail: 

  1. Keep moo-ving and speak in a normal tone. Sudden movements and loud noises may surprise cows.
  2. Approach cows from the side or front. They find it udderly unnerving to have someone sneak up from behind, the bovine blind spot.
  3. Steer clear of getting between a protective mother and her calf.
  4. If you need to move a cow, step slowly into its flight zone. Invading the animal's “personal space” will motivate it to mosey aside.

A second video, “Sharing open spaces with livestock when you have a dog,” gives advice for dog owners to keep their best friends safe around cows.

In a third video, “A year in the life of a cow,” the UC Cooperative Extension spokespuppet describes a typical year for a beef cow.

“The videos are a fun way to educate the public about grazing on rangelands,” said Stephanie Larson, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and rangeland advisor in Sonoma County.

The videos are based on the UC ANR publication “Understanding Working Rangelands,” authored by Barry and Larson, at http://ucanr.edu/shareopenspace.

Watch all three videos on UC ANR's YouTube channel:

Sharing open spaces with livestock https://youtu.be/Qd8LEGLDhaM

Sharing open spaces with livestock when you have a dog https://youtu.be/zzdGnfFwmcA

A year in the life of a cow https://youtu.be/znJbWknVXVg

Posted on Friday, November 17, 2017 at 8:48 AM

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. 

Photo of barn owl house on a pole

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 a rodent back to the nest box, photo by Gary 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 by Chuck Ingels.
 
Barn owl with prey, photo by Gary Rohman
Posted on Monday, November 13, 2017 at 8:36 AM
Tags: barn owls (1), nest boxes (1), rodents (1)

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. 

toby ogeen pit

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.

P1430320

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.

Pit 3 - Yolo Loam

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
Tags: geology (2), Konrad Mathesius (1), soils (1), Toby O''Geen (1), Water (16)

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