The potential to conserve energy, equipment and labor costs while boosting soil organic matter and saving water is prompting more California farmers to pay attention to conservation tillage, a farming practice that will be the center of all-day University of California conferences June 26 in the San Joaquin Valley and June 28 in the Sacramento Valley.

The San Joaquin Valley conference is from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center, 17353 W. Oakland Ave., Five Points, Calif. The Sacramento Valley conference, also running from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., is at the Western Center for Agricultural Equipment, on Hutchinson Boulevard just west of Highway 113 on the UC Davis campus.

“Conservation tillage has been around for a long time,” said UC vegetable crops specialist and conference organizer Jeff Mitchell, “but it is only now beginning to catch on in California.”

The conservation tillage farming system dramatically reduces the number of times tractor implements disturb the soil. A cover crop may be grown during the off-season and later killed. The desired crop is then planted within the dead plant material, which can serve as mulch to suppress weeds, slow water evaporation and increase soil organic matter.

“In conventional farming, tractors make an average of 9 to 11 tillage-related passes from fall to spring to prepare the soil for summer cropping,” Mitchell said. “Using conservation tillage, tractor passes can conceivably be cut to 2 or 3.”

During the morning session, participants will tour conservation tillage research trials. The speakers are:

  • UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Sutter and Yuba counties Michael Cahn, who is studying processing tomatoes' development in strip-till and no-till organic production systems.

  • UC Riverside weed science specialist Milt McGiffen, who will review his work with warm-season cowpea and sorghum-Sudan cover crops preceding a variety of desert valley vegetable crops, including peppers, melons and lettuce.

  • UC cotton specialist Bob Hutmacher and UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Madera County Ron Vargas, who will cover herbicide-resistant crop trials being conducted in Buttonwillow and Firebaugh. They are looking at stand establishment, soil water content and weed management issues.

  • Vegetable crops specialist Mitchell, who will review his studies on a variety of crops in conservation tillage systems, including tomatoes, cotton, corn and melons.

Field demonstrations of the specialized implements farmers use in conservation tillage will show such operations as no-till planning, ridge-till planting, no-till transplanting, strip-till planting, high residue cultivating, single-pass post-harvest tillage and others.” In Five Points, a visit to John Diener's ranch, where large-scale conservation tillage farming is under way, rounds out the morning activities.

Following lunch, Max Carter, president of the Conservation Tillage Alliance in Douglas, Ga., a long-term user of strip tillage production systems, describes his farming operation in south central Georgia and presents his rationale for advocating conservation tillage. John Bradley, director of conservation tillage programs for Monsanto Corp. in Tennessee, describes what is involved in retooling for conservation tillage and gives the latest on Monsanto's demonstration trials on herbicide-resistant corn and cotton.

Finally California farmers who are either using or experimenting with conservation tillage will discuss their personal experiences. The farmers speaking at the Five Points conference are west side cotton-rotation farmers Diener, Bob Prys of Five Points and Rick Neuenschwander of Huron, Buellton organic farmer Helmut Klauer, Tulare dairy operator Vernal Gomes and Stratford cotton and tomato farmer Dick Newton. At the Davis conference the farmer panel consists of Chuck Dudley, farm manager for Heidrick Farms in Woodland, and Bruce Rominger, a row crop farmer in Winters.

Registration for the conservation tillage conferences is $10 per person before June 1 or $15 at the door. The fee includes parking, lunch and proceedings. Six hours of continuing education credit (PCA or CCA) will be awarded to participants.