Soil Structure Problems

Tokay Grapes, west of Lodi, California

Sorry, I can’t help it…  I see water penetration problems due to poor soil structure wherever I go and I have to stop and take pictures…. and the problem has certainly gotting worse and worse in recent years. 

I stopped a took this photo last week [Friday 23 April 2010] after a light rain.  The soil is very sandy… probably a sandy loam, but after just a light rain, the water is standing in the lower areas.  This condition is very indicitive of poor soil structure from using snow-melt water for years, which has led to this serious problem.  Not only does the water not move down into the soil well, oxygen can’t move into the soil very well, and of course, the root system is suffering, too.  If you have any problems with your crops like this, contact us… we can help improve your production and profit.  Like the Men’s Wearhouse guy, we guanantee it…   Dr. B.

Lost in Translation?

In a Japanese hotel: “You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.”

In an Austrian hotel catering to skiers: “Not to perambulate the corridors in the hours of repose in the boots of ascension.”

On the menu of a Swiss restaurant: “Our wines leave you nothing to hope for.”

On the menu of a Polish hotel: “Salad a firm’s own make; limpid red beet soup with cheesy dumplings in the form of a finger; roasted duck let loose; beef rashers beaten up in the country people’s fashion.”

A sign posted in Germany’s Black Forest: “It is strictly forbidden on our Black Forest camping site that people of different sex, for instance, men and women, live together in one tent unless they are married with each other for that purpose.”

Life’s Decisions

“Now I realize that on any particular decision a very great amount of heat can be generated. But I do say this: life is not made up of just one decision here, or another one there. It is the total of the decisions that you make in your daily lives with respect to politics, to your family, to your environment, to the people about you. Government has to do that same thing. It is only in the mass that finally philosophy really emerges.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower 2/17/55

Mulches Tested for No-Till Organic Crops

ScienceDaily (Apr. 20, 2010) — Conservation tillage encompasses a range of techniques for establishing crops in the previous crop’s residues, which are purposely left on the soil surface. The principal benefits of conservation tillage are improved water conservation and the reduction of soil erosion; additional benefits can include reduced fuel consumption, planting and harvesting flexibility, and reduced labor requirements. A new study published in HortScience finds promise in a common legume used as an effective crop cover for organically produced onions.

Beans grown in corn residue with conservation tillage

Conservation tillage promotes soil quality and fertility in accordance with organic principles, but the practice can be challenging. Success of conservation tillage in organic systems is highly influenced by factors such as crop rotation for weed and disease control and nitrogen availability.  Surface residues in these systems are usually made up of unharvested crop remains or cover crops that were killed with herbicides (or, in the case of organics, by mechanical methods). Researchers at North Carolina State University recently released the results of a 2-year experiment designed to assess the efficacy of summer annual grass (foxtail millet) and legume (cowpea) cover crops in different mixture ratios or monocultures. The researchers also analyzed rates of soybean meal as nitrogen amendment on overwintered, no-till, organically managed onion production. Foxtail millet and cowpea were compared with a bare-ground control for weed suppression and nitrogen contribution when followed by organically managed no-till bulb onion production Cover crop treatments were grown during the summer (July through October) followed by no-till transplanted onions in the fall for overwinter production (November to May).

The field experiment was managed according to the U.S. National Organic Program production standards. Cover crop treatments of cowpea and bare ground had the greatest total marketable onion yield both years of the experiments. When supplemental baled millet was applied, however, onion mortality was more than 50%, a result the researchers attributed to the mulch thickness. The researchers stated that “cowpea shows promise as a summer cover crop used as a residue-mulch for fall planted crops such as overwintered onion. Cowpea produced comparable onion yields to bare ground in both years of the experiment.” They noted that, although cowpea had high weed interference, hand-weeding twice was sufficient to maintain onion yields. Foxtail millet did not function as well as cowpea as a mulch for overwintered onions. According to Emily Vollmer, who led the study; “It appeared that ground coverage and thickness of the grass residue negatively affected onion plant stand and overall yield. Millet in a mixture with cowpea either reduced onion yield or had comparable yield to cowpea as a monocrop.”

While foxtail millet can perform well as a cover crop when planted in early summer, it was stunted by foliar disease when planted after mid-July, making it a poor choice for a midsummer-seeded cover crop in eastern North Carolina. Soybean meal showed potential as an effective source of nitrogen even when surface-applied in cool weather months. The study showed that nitrogen would be available for plant uptake in less than 2 weeks after surface-applying soybean meal, which facilitates the use of soybean meal in multiple applications tailored to timing of crop plant demand. The scientists added that split applications of soybean meal could be an important improvement in nitrogen management to better meet increased demand for nitrogen uptake during bulb initiation and growth in the spring.

Bicarbonate in Irrigation Water (part 2)

This week I visited a wholesale nursery grower in the Sebastopol, California area.

Yellowing of young nursery plants (iron chlorosis) due to elevated levels of bicarbonate in irrigation water.

They had very high levels of bicarbonate in their irrigation water (above 220 ppm [3.6 meq/L]).  Because of the high bicarbonate levels, many of the plants were showing severe iron deficiency symptoms (iron chlorosis).  High bicarbonate levels in the soil and/or irrigation water can lead to iron deficiency in crops and other plants.

Chlorosis is generally a symptom of cellular iron (Fe) deficiency that results from a limited availability of apoplastic Fe in the leaf.   However, it is often not necessarily associated with a deficiency of soluble iron in the soil solution, or a decrease in Fe uptake by the roots.  An elevated bicarbonate concentration of the soil has been identified as a major factor for the induction of chlorosis in various crops/plants.   Bicarbonate-induced chlorosis is caused by transport of bicarbonate into the stele that leads to an alkalinization of the xylem sap and, in turn, of the leaf apoplast.  Symptoms of iron deficiency develop at a high apoplastic pH due to a repression of Fe3+ reduction, which is a prerequisite for iron uptake by mesophyll cells.

With irrigation water, levels of bicarbonate + carbonate  above 3.0 meq/L are considered harmful; also because of calcium in the soil that is precipitated out as lime as the soil dries (see the Bicarbonate in Irrigation Water (part 1), posted yesterday). 

If you have any questions about high bicarbonates or iron deficiency, or any other problems with your soils or irrigation water, contact us and we can help.  Dr. B.

Bicarbonate in Irrigation Water (part 1)

Bicarbonate + Carbonate:  Irrigation water that contains levels of bicarbonate plus carbonate (especially above 3.0 meq/L (183 ppm) [combined]) are considered very harmful for two primary reasons.  Reason #1:  Bicarbonates and carbonates will combine with calcium to form lime (CaCO3) when the water evaporates.  This results in several negative consequences: (1) when free lime forms, any available beneficial calcium will be precipitated out, further compounding problems of not having enough calcium in the soil (most soils in California, Washington, Oregon and the rest of the western United States fall into this category); and (2) bicarbonate itself is the most toxic anion that exists in relation to plant health (more on this tomorrow, which is “Reason #2”). 

Wine grapes irrigated with high levels of bicarbonate in the water, leading to serious soil structure problems, erosion, and water runnoff.

To compensate, the addition of calcium to the irrigation water (e.g., in the form of solution-grade anhydrite or gypsum) will help a lot with any calcium precipitated out as lime.  Also, an acid (e.g., N-pHuric or sulfuric) can also be added to the water to neutralize the bicarbonates and carbonates, maintaining an optimum water pH of approximately 6.5.

Also ♫:  100-ppm of anything in the irrigation water amounts to 270 lbs. per acre-foot of water. Many crops may use 2.5 acre-feet of water.  If, for example, your irrigation water contained 350 ppm bicarbonate (very common in California), you could deliver an astounding 2,363 lbs. of bicarbonate per acre into your soil.  Each pound of bicarbonate ties up one pound of soluble calcium.  Reason to give bicarbonates in irrigation water serious attention.  If you have high bicarbonates and/or water penetration or soil structure problems, contact us and we can help you.  Dr. B.

Calif. Farm Facts: part 2

California’s agriculture includes more than 400 commodities, with the state producing nearly half of U.S.- grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Across the nation, U.S. consumers regularly purchase several crops produced solely in California.

Crop and Livestock Commodities in which California Leads the Nation




Dry Beans

Pink Beans

Garden Bedding


Brussels Sprouts

Chinese Cabbage





Cotton (Pima)






Flowers, cut


Grapes, Raisins

Grapes, Table

Grapes, Wine

Mustard Greens

Hay, Alfalfa






Lettuce, Head

Lettuce, Leaf

Lettuce, Romaine


Melons, Cantaloupe

Melons, Honeydew



Nursery Plants



Onions, green


Peaches, Cling

Peaches, Freestone

Pears, Bartlett

Peas, Chinese

Peppers, Bell




Plums, Dried





Rice, Sweet


Seed, Alfalfa

Seed, Bermuda Grass

Seed, Ladino Clover

Seed, Vegetable and Flower





Tomatoes, Fresh Market

Tomatoes, Processing

Vegetables, Greenhouse

Vegetables, Oriental

Wild Rice


Almonds, Madera County. Almonds are the number two crop grown in California.

Calif. Farm Facts: part 1

California Department of Food and Agriculture. (04/2010). 

California’s top 20 crop and livestock commodities accounted for more than $29.6 billion in value for 2008 (the latest year available).  Eleven commodities exceeded $1.00 billion in value for 2008.  Despite higher production costs for many growers, twelve of the 20 commodities registered an increase in value from the previous year.  The same was not true for California’s leading commodity, Milk and Cream, which decreased by $412 million in value, due to weak demand early in the year and diminished market price.  Final grower returns could change the sales value for hay, berries and other commodities, resulting in an updated dollar amount in next year’s report.

Leading Counties:  California is home to the most productive agricultural counties in the nation. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture’s ranking of market value of agricultural products sold, nine of the Nation’s top 10 producing counties are in California.

Chardonnay Wine Grapes, Clements, California. Grapes (wine and table) are still California's most valuable crop.

 California’s Top 10 Agricultural Counties
1.  Fresno  5,669,527 ,000          Grapes, Almonds, Poultry, Milk, Tomatoes

2  Tulare   5,017,955,000          Milk, Oranges, Cattle and Calves, Grapes, Alfalfa Hay & Silage

3.  Kern  4,032,830,000          Milk, Grapes, Citrus, Almonds and By-Products, Carrots

4.  Monterey 3,829,123,000          Leaf and Head Lettuce, Strawberries, Nursery, Broccoli, Grapes

5.  Merced  2,972,698,000          Milk, Chickens, Almonds, Cattle and Calves, Potatoes

6.  Stanislaus 2,463,787,000          Milk, Almonds, Chickens, Cattle and Calves, Silage

7.  San Joaquin 2,129,812,000           Milk, Grapes, Walnuts, Cherries, Almond Meats

8.  Kings 1,760,168,000          Milk, Cotton, Cattle and Calves, Alfalfa, Tomatoes

9.   Imperial 1,684,522,000          Cattle, Alfalfa, Wheat, Head and Leaf Lettuce, Broccoli

10.  Ventura 1,611,091,000          Strawberries, Nursery Stock, Lemons, Celery, Raspberries