Over the course of the UC trial, an average of 3,400 pounds of dry biomass per acre was produced by the cover crops each year with rainfall alone. Productivity is generally related to the amount of rain, with as little as 65 pounds of dry biomass per acre in 2007, when rainfall was 5.2 inches, and 6,400 pounds in 2005, when 10.1 inches of rain fell.

The timing of rainfall was also important. Rain is needed early to establish the crop and late in the season to sustain its growth when the temperature warms.

Over time, growing cover crops results in a significantly higher amount of carbon in the top foot of soil. Following eight years of cover cropping, soil carbon values in the standard tillage cover crop system, in which the cover crop was treated as a green manure and incorporated into the soil at a depth of 10 inches, was 12.2 tons of carbon per acre. Where cover crops were combined with conservation tillage, the researchers measured 12.8 tons per acre. In areas managed with conservation tillage and no cover crop, 11.7 tons per acre of carbon was in the top foot of soil. Under standard tillage and no cover crops, currently the common practice in the San Joaquin Valley, soil carbon came in at 9.9 tons per acre.

In addition to improving soil quality, farmers are investigating whether storing extra carbon in the soil will make them eligible for selling carbon credits under California Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act.

“Sequestering carbon in farmland could be a means of mitigating global warming from greenhouse gas emissions,” Mitchell said. “We are working with farmers to develop a record of performance so they can document their potential for storing more carbon using conservation tillage and cover crops.”