It’s a major understatement to say these are not your grandfather’s cotton patches, the ones growing at the University of California Research and Extension Center at Five Points.
Sure, some of them draw on decades-old technologies of overhead irrigation that have yet to be embraced fully by growers in California.
But they also use a myriad of technological advances — infrared photography, weather stations, global positioning systems, soil sensors, remote monitoring and management of vast acreage from a smartphone or computer and broadband network — that are years ahead of the cotton sack into which fibrous bolls were once picked.
The palette of new technology was laid out for those who gathered at the center for the 3rd annual Twilight Conservation Agriculture field day to look at the challenges and virtues of no-till and low till farming, use of overhead irrigation systems compared to drip irrigation, and use of cover crops.
Speakers included vendors of the new technology, farmers who touted pivot irrigation systems, and researchers who are still sorting out how to make it all work together.
The event also was marked by the dedication of UC’s first full-sized center pivot overhead irrigation system at the Five Points Center.
“We see tremendous possibilities for overhead irrigation in cotton, alfalfa, corn, onions and wheat production,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis. Mitchell spearheaded the Twilight field day.
The new system, valued at about $100,000, was donated by Reinke Manufacturing of Hastings, Neb., for researchers to use. Reinke will also sponsor the installation of its OnTrac irrigation monitoring system, which will give farmers and the public a real-time, online window of observation on crops growing and being irrigated by the new center pivot.
To begin with, the center pivot will irrigate an 8-acre half-circle of alfalfa and an 8-acre half-circle of cotton. All aspects of production — including irrigation system performance, weed control, fertilization, soil salinity and economic viability — will be monitored by a diverse team of researchers from UC Cooperative Extension, Fresno State University and UC Davis, plus farmer cooperators and industry members.
Growers, as well as UC researchers, cited savings on two key resources, labor and water, as keys to their adoption of pivot systems over solid state irrigation systems.
“The No. 1 reason is the reduction in labor,” said Karen Klonsky, UC Cooperative Extension specialist. Second was more efficient use of water.
Klonsky said that added advantages for overhead versus drip included more flexibility to changing rotations. She added that yields were the same for field crops that included cotton, wheat and corn.
Klonsky said overhead systems were good for farming in rolling hills, a sentiment echoed later by growers. She added that fewer mites were found in fields irrigated overhead than in fields drip irrigated, speculating that may have been because the mites are washed off.
Joy Hollingsworth, a graduate student at Fresno State University, said drip irrigated fields at the center tended to have mites while overhead irrigated fields did not.
But the weed population was greater with overhead, she said. There were no differences in yields between drip and overhead irrigation, but with drip there appeared to be lower chlorophyll levels.
Marvin Wollman, with WHB Farms in Warden, Wash., said a “key driver” in the choice to go to overhead pivots was labor.
“The transition can be challenging,” he admitted. Among the challenges: “You have to learn your soils. You learn by experience.”
His company uses the overhead system to chemigate. “We don’t need to fly or to run sprayers,” Wollman said.
As in the central San Joaquin Valley, he said, rainfall levels are low in the Columbia Basin,, as few as 6 to 9 inches of rain in a year.
“With rainfall that low, we can control water to achieve what we want,” he said.
But, as in the Valley, it’s costly to go deep for needed water. “It’s expensive to drill,” Wollman said.
He proceeded to recount a string of technologies used to keep tabs on his systems, including weather stations that indicate wind speed so that he will know whether he can chemigate on a farm that spans some 70 miles and soil moisture sensors that can be read remotely.
Among his ambitious plans is to put “a Wi-Fi cloud” over the entire farm “to create our own network” for monitoring and managing use of his equipment.
Dan Wilke, with William Bolthouse Farms in Bakersfield, grows carrots with pivot systems that took the place of solid set pipes. He also said there was “a learning curve” for establishing pivot use, but it has proved worthwhile.
“You have to commit to it,” he said.
Among the challenges is the fact that systems may get mired in mud as they circle. One solution: going from two wheels to three or four.
Mitchell said the use of the new farming techniques can hold a key to what farmers must do in the future: “producing more with less. It’s a global imperative.”
He showed plots where low or no-till farming has been done since 1999. He admitted that in the first four or five years, there were lower yields on no-till cotton compared with conventional till.
“But the last five years, there has been no yield loss in cotton,” he said.
Representatives of the Natural Resource Conservation Services showed how to evaluate the chemical, physical and biological properties of soils. The program closed with a presentation by Dennis Chessman, state agronomist with NRCS, who said his staff can help growers making the transition to low or no-till farming.