California’s vast dry rangelands are dotted with water troughs ideal for quenching cattle’s thirst. But in most cases, the troughs’ designs are a torment to wildlife drawn for a drink.
Monterey County rancher George Work observed how traditional water troughs frustrated the wildlife on his family’s 12,000-acre cattle ranch. Small birds couldn’t reach water two or three inches below the top edge. Coyotes, bobcats and cottontails weren’t tall enough to reach over the rim. Work set to making a water trough that would meet the needs of all animals on the range – from cattle, hunting dogs and horses to deer and rabbits.
While raising cattle remains the primary function of the Work Ranch, in order to generate more income from the scenic open space the ranch opens its doors to hunting wild boar, quail and Tule elk. The visitors enjoy seeing a diversity of wildlife.
“One-third of our business comes from wildlife,” Work said.
In 1998, Work drew from decades of first-hand experience to design a better water trough. With a grant from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, he constructed a prototype. The concrete trough is sunk into the ground under an elderberry tree. Work modified a float like those used in toilet tanks to keep the water within centimeters of the rim.
That first man-made watering hole was an improvement for many species, but it also revealed some problems. Birds needed an escape ramp to climb out of the water should they fall in while drinking; the ramp should be shallow enough to allow the birds to bathe. Larger animals had to be kept from using the trough for a cooling dip. Work found that sloping the sides to a sharp V at the bottom of the trough made it unappealing for a soak.
Years of experimentation and innovation resulted in the development of pre-manufactured concrete water troughs, which are now commercially available. The next challenge is selling the idea to ranchers.
Enter UC Cooperative Extension. On an unrelated visit to the Work Ranch, UC Berkeley wildlife biologist Reg Barrett was impressed by Work’s invention and encouraged UC Cooperative Extension rangeland advisor Royce Larsen and NRCS rangeland conservationist Karl Striby to help spread the word.
Larsen and Stirby are now completing the first step, adding the ground-level water trough specifications to NRCS's published Technical Notes. The publication will provide ranchers and other land owners with the information they need to install the wildlife-friendly troughs.
“If you’re thinking of installing a basic, traditional trough for cattle, it may or may not be the best idea,” Larsen said. “But you’re thinking about supporting both cattle and wildlife, it’s great.”
In the video below, rancher George Work shows the ground-level water trough prototype and the second-generation, pre-manufactured version.
Ecosystem services is a new term I've been hearing. Naturally I wondered, what are these services and is the ecosystem serving me? Ecosystem services are benefits we receive from the environment, such as clean water, open space, beautiful scenery, food production, wildlife habitat and diversity of plants and animals.
Not surprisingly, ecosystem services appeal to a broad audience. However, in the past, many people advocated for a single favored service and would fight with those who were partial to a different service. Now there is a strong trend toward partnerships.
“There’s been sea change on the topic of livestock management and rangeland ecosystem services,” said Ken Tate, UC Cooperative Extension watershed specialist based at UC Davis.
In a scenario 20 years ago, many ranchers would have focused solely on livestock production and ranch profit, while some environmental groups would have voiced concerns solely about wildlife habitat, and a government regulatory agency may have considered water quality the most important service. All parties have begun to recognize the connections among these important services and the need to work together to enhance all of them.
“If a ranch is not economically viable, then there is risk that land could become a shopping mall or some other development,” Tate explained. “A working ranch provides more ecosystem services than developments such as malls or suburban sprawl.”
A UC study published in the current issue of California Agriculture journal found that rangeland owners valued their land for its natural amenities as well as a financial investment.
Recently more than 120 people representing new and long-time ranchers, conservation groups, federal and state natural resources agencies, UC scientists and others gathered for the “Managing Rangeland for Ecosystem Services Workshop and Field Day” to discuss their common goals.
“Interest in this event reflects the growing interest in ecosystem services in a growing number of people,” said Tate, who organized the Oct. 18 event at UC’s Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, located 60 miles northeast of Sacramento. “Some people drove four or five hours to attend.”
At the workshop, Tate introduced the Prescribed Grazing for Ecosystem Service Project.
Despite their different backgrounds and ecosystem service priorities, there was no adversarial discussion among the attendees, observed participant Morgan Doran, UC Cooperative Extension livestock & natural resources advisor for Solano County.
“Everyone seemed to be in agreement that livestock are a useful tool in sustaining a healthy rangeland ecosystem,” Doran said. “And all seemed to acknowledge a need to better understand the balance of provisioning goods and services from rangeland systems.”
“We used to talk about one service at a time,” Tate said. “Now we talk about tradeoffs and synergies involved in managing for many services simultaneously. Optimizing water quality might take away from profitability. Talking about tradeoffs used to be confrontational. Now if we can understand the costs of these tradeoffs, there may be an individual or organization willing to pay for that difference. Basically, purchasing ecosystem services.”
Tate credits the workshop cosponsor California Rangeland Conservation Coalition for fostering the collaborative attitude. UC is among the more than 100 agricultural organizations, environmental interest groups, and state and federal agencies that have signed the California Rangeland Resolution, which recognizes that rangelands and the diversity of species they support largely exist due to grazing and other stewardship practices of the ranchers who own and manage the land.
“New people have come to the table who might not have gotten involved in a negative process,” Tate said. “The coalition is a positive approach to the conservation of rangelands, that makes it attractive to people. They are working together to achieve common goals.”
Tate is excited about Cooperative Extension’s role of trying to identify the information needs and conducting the research to supply this information.
Leslie Roche, a UC Davis postdoctoral researcher and presenter, remarked on the interest and enthusiasm in collaborative research and management demonstrated among the diverse group of attendees.
“Everyone is genuinely motivated to work together in bridging the gap between research and management communities on this topic, and that is really exciting," Roche said.
A list of speakers and their presentations for the workshop and field day are posted on the California Rangeland Watershed Laboratory website.
Although the term ecosystem service was unfamiliar to me, it’s not new. In 2000, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. The objective of the project was, “to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and the scientific basis for action needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of those systems and their contribution to human well-being.”
UC scientists presented recent additions to the growing body of research on conservation tillage in California at the second annual Twilight Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems field day last month, demonstrating progress in agricultural systems that will help farmers cut production costs, reduce soil disturbance and save water.
UC scientists and their partner farmers are conducting research that addresses the current needs of the San Joaquin Valley agricultural industry and research that is looking to the future by anticipating changes that may need to be negotiated in coming decades.
During the field day at UC's West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points, Calif., participants visited two primary research areas. The first is the longest-standing conservation ag system study in California, where a cotton/tomato rotation has been farmed for 12 years running. The plots include standard tillage with and without cover crops and conservation tillage with and without cover crops.
“This might be the most-visited research field in California,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist and chair of the CT workgroup. “Many students and scientists have conducted research here.”
For example, scientists have been able to quantify significant improvements in soil quality with the use of cover crops and conservation tillage. UC Davis soil biochemist Will Horwath reported that conservation tillage combined with an off-season cover crop has increased the soil carbon content close to five tons per hectare.
“Is that significant?” Horwath asks. “Yes. In 10 years, we have almost doubled the soil carbon content.”
Because of the valley’s dry, hot climate, the native soils are typically very low in carbon, which is a characteristic of low soil quality. Carbon in the soil acts as a glue, helping reduce wind erosion.
At the second research field, conservation tillage research is being combined with overhead and subsurface drip irrigation. Coupling overhead irrigation with conservation tillage is common in other regions of the U.S., but is just beginning to get attention in California.
“There are more than 17,000 center pivots in the state of Nebraska, and it is estimated that there are somewhere between 300 and 500 pivots currently in use in California, the No. 1 ag state in the nation,” Mitchell said. “This situation is changing rapidly.”
Overhead irrigation is efficient, automated, allows for diverse cropping and, with soil residues from conservation tillage, permits uniform infiltration.
Four users of overhead irrigation shared their experiences with the irrigation system at the field day. West side farmer John Deiner said mechanized irrigation has significantly reduced labor input in his agronomic crops while boosting crop yields.
“Our corn grew two to three feet taller under the pivot,” he said.
Will Taylor of King City grows potatoes for In and Out Burger under center pivots. He said his yields are 20 percent higher when using the overhead irrigation system.
“Once you overcome challenges,” Taylor said, “they’re awesome.”
He demonstrated their ease of use by bringing along his 9-year-old son Liam, whom he said can already manage the machine.
Darryl Cordova of Denair uses overhead irrigation in a hilly area on the east side of the valley.
“What used to take three guys six hours of moving pipe is now done with a push of a button on my cell phone,” Cordova said.
Scott Schmidt, who farms across the street from the West Side Research and Extension Center, said he has learned how to successfully use overhead irrigation and conservation tillage from the “school of hard knocks.”
“Most of the problems have been self-inflicted wounds,” Schmidt said. But now, he calls the system “flawless.” “We have seven pivots that I operate remotely from my phone.”
I’m referring, of course, to the release of Roundup Ready alfalfa (RRA) in 2005 and the subsequent lawsuit that stopped its planting from 2007 until 2011 – a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court!
The drama continues today with newly minted lawsuits, as farmers once again plant RRA and conventional alfalfa throughout the U.S. But what does this ballyhoo mean for those who actually grow alfalfa?
At the heart of the controversy is co-existence: whether cross-pollination from GE alfalfa would completely prevent organic or other growers who didn’t want GE alfalfa from practicing agriculture as they see fit. Or, alternatively, whether farmers can adopt methods to avoid undue neighbor influence or contamination.
Successful coexistence can be defined as the ability of diverse production systems (organic, GE-adopting, conventional) to thrive without excessive neighbor influence, or resorting to extraordinary protection measures.
Is co-existence possible? The answer is a definitive “yes” based on both history and principle. Agriculture is replete with examples of farmers adjusting and cooperating to make diverse systems work. In principle, there is no technical reason that diverse farming practices cannot co-exist.
So if you produce alfalfa for organic, export or other markets that don’t want GE crops, what is required? The answer is very different for those who grow alfalfa for hay vs. those who produce seed. Seed requires considerable isolation distances to prevent contamination – and always has.
For hay, a series of steps can reduce this risk to very low levels.
The first, and most important step is to plant seed tested and determined as non-GE. Plenty of conventional seed is available, as are inexpensive testing methods to assure that the seed is non-GE. Seed companies have committed to produce conventional seed in the future, including seed destined for GE-sensitive markets.
The next step is to assure that contamination doesn’t happen during harvest – through partial bales moving in balers from field to field or accidental misidentification of hay lots. This is likely the second-highest risk of contamination.
The lowest – but not zero – risk of contamination in hay: inadvertent gene flow from hayfield to hayfield.
Neighbors can reduce this risk further by: 1) Controlling unharvested plants on field edges and feral alfalfa along roadsides to prevent seed production; 2) Routinely harvesting hay to prevent excessive flowering; and 3) Completely removing crop before excessive flowering or seed production. Crop removal prevents permanent contamination, since seed must fall to the ground and grow into new plants to contaminate hayfields.
Lastly, it is important to understand thresholds or market tolerance.
Does a single RRA stem, accidently baled in a 200-ton lot of conventional hay (containing billions of stems), constitute contamination? This will be market-determined. Commercially available test strips will likely satisfy most if not all sensitive markets of a hay product’s non-GE status. All markets have thresholds for contaminants, and there is no reason to believe this to be an exception.
In short, methods are readily available to assure an alfalfa crop’s non-GE status, even as neighbors start growing GE alfalfa. These require a higher awareness of gene flow and other avenues of contamination, but do not appear to be onerous or difficult.
We also should not underestimate the importance of mutual respect and willingness to cooperate among parties as keys to a co-existence strategy. It is axiomatic that coexistence is impossible if parties are unwilling to listen to each other, allow a diversity of viewpoints or develop a way to resolve disputes.
The alfalfa industry has largely stepped forward to support diverse systems within the agricultural landscape and needs to continue to do so. This has been the case with National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance efforts to promote coexistence over the past 5 years, which continue today (see their website). Seed companies and growers continue to negotiate isolation distances for production of GE and non-GE seed. Likewise, hay farmers have demonstrated co-existence by growing RRA and organic alfalfa successfully on the same farms.
This year in California’s Imperial Valley, seed, hay and organic growers, exporters and seed companies have met extensively and decided to prohibit RRA in their region due to the close proximity of seed, hay, biological factors and the importance of seed and hay exports.
These are examples of “bottom-up” co-existence approaches led largely by farmers and companies – in contrast to regulations decided in Washington or through the courts.
The concept of right-to-farm and co-existence between neighbors and diverse industries is not new to agriculture. Yet the introduction of GE alfalfa and its potential influence on neighboring farmers requires improved co-existence strategies for alfalfa.
(This article was first printed in Hay and Forage Grower magazine.)
Forget bird watching; next time you spot a hummingbird, listen.
Most of us pause to gaze at the tiny birds’ impressive mid-air hovering, part of their hunting behavior, but males of some hummingbird species generate loud sounds with their tail feathers while courting females.
Now, for the first time, the cause of these sounds has been identified: a paper published in the Sept. 9, 2011, issue of Science reveals that air flowing past the tail feathers of a male hummingbird makes his tail feathers flutter and thereby generate fluttering sounds.
Male hummingbirds only produce fluttering sounds during their elaborate courtship rituals. Typically, during such a display, a male hummingbird will climb into the air five to 40 meters, and then quickly dive-bomb down past a perched female; when the courting male bird reaches the lowest point of his dive, he rapidly spreads and then closes his tail feathers. This spreading exposes the tail feathers to air, which causes them to flutter and generate sound, according to Christopher Clark of Yale University, lead author of the study.
Clark's research, which he began as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, shows that the males of each hummingbird species have their own signature sound — largely determined by whether and how the fluttering frequencies of its different tail feathers interact with one another and blend together.
Other factors, such as the size, shape, mass and stiffness of the hummingbird's feathers, also help determine the tone of each species' particular sound.
In addition to diving during courtship rituals, a male hummingbird may also brandish showy ornaments and produce sounds from other feathers besides his tail feathers.
All this, just to impress that special lady.
Clark analyzed the fluttering sounds of hummingbird feathers by measuring the fluttering feathers with a Scanning Laser Doppler Vibrometer — an instrument that is used to measure the vibrations of a surface — and by viewing high speed videos of the tail feathers of hummingbirds in a wind tunnel.
The study was co-authored by Damian Elias, also of UC Berkeley.
— Adapted from a story by the National Science Foundation.