Saturday, May 28, 2016

Central Valley Almond Growers Wary of Salt in the Earth

Water is water. Right?

Well, there’s agua that comes from sky and snow melt. Then there’s water that comes from wells and reservoirs hundreds of miles away. 

For years, Valley farmers have grappled with the increase in soil salinity brought in by imported water. That problem has been compounded during the severe drought as farmers relied more on well water as an irrigation source.
Growers drilled more wells due to the severe drought.

You see well water contains high levels of salt and minerals. Over time, the salt builds up in the soil and makes it hard and impermeable.Water has a tough time getting down into the root system. Also, salt and minerals are tough on plants and can clog irrigation systems, especially drip systems.
The salinity issue is particular hard on almond trees, says UCCE Merced County almond expert David Doll. Unlike crops like cotton and alfalfa, almonds can’t handle too much salinity. The trees don’t have the plant structure to pump water into roots.
An aerial view of the salinity issue in the Valley.
You might ask “Didn’t the Valley experience a fairly normal rainy season?” And “didn’t rains help ease salinity concerns for growers?”

Well, David warns growers not to assume the rains leached out some of the salt from the soil.

“It’s important to do some salinity sampling in your soil,” he tells us. “If you didn’t do it in the fall, you should do it in the spring to understand where you are. Keep the salinity component in mind. It may not be gone because of the rain. It takes more than one year to clean up those kinds of problems,” David adds. Remember, salinity can impact almond yields.  The reason, he says, is trees wind up working harder for water and that saps energy for crop growth and production.
The drought stressed many almond trees.

Growers should know that managing salinity in water and in the soil require different tactics. Useful tips are available at UCCE’s Almond Doctor website on salinity management.

UC experts say almond growers can apply gypsum to reduce sodium levels. It also improves the soil structure to help with leaching.Growers should consult with the certified crop advisers about using calcium-type amendments in the water.

Meanwhile in the fields, field scout Carlos Silva says more cotton plants have developed their first squares and pests counts are in check. But he notes he’s finding “lots of lygus” in nearby alfalfa fields. Fields harvested early this month are growing quickly in this warming weather and don’t be surprised to see growers cutting these fields sometime this week.

That means lygus bugs in these harvested fields will lose their habitat and look for a new home – most likely the young cotton fields. That could mean trouble for the developing cotton squares. Once again, Carlos reminds alfalfa growers to start leaving strips of uncut alfalfa to provide habitat for lygus.

Workshop Alert: Don’t forget the free surface irrigation workshop scheduled for Friday, June 3, from 9 a.m. to noon atthe UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, 9240 S. Riverbend Ave., Parlier.  Learn about how to better conduct surface irrigation activities, including furrow, border and irrigation systems. Speakers include our friend Dan Munk, UCCE advisor in Fresno County; Daniele Zaccaria, UCCE specialist at the UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources; Eduardo Bautisa, of the USDA ARS Water Management and Conservation Research unit in Arizona, and Khaled Balie, UCCE director in Imperial County. For more information, contact Dan at (559) 241-7515 or email him at

Monday, May 23, 2016

Was Almond “Flash Bloom” a Flash in the Pan This Year?

You’re probably familiar with the phrases “flash in the pan,” “in a flash” and “flash flood.”
Well, here’s farm-related idiom: “flash bloom.”

No, it’s not the latest foodie trend like the blooming onion. Rather it’s something coined by Merced County’s UC Cooperative Extension pomologist and almond expert David Doll.

“We had this massive bloom period where everything bloomed at once,” David says. The result, he says, was developing pea-sized nuts that started to fall off the trees due to poor pollination. “What gave that away was when we saw a greater percentage of nut set around the beehives.” The farther away from the hives, the poorer the nut set. He surmises the cause was “because of this big flash bloom that occurred.”

As you know, the welcomed rains in the late fall and in January gave way to a dry February, which set off this sudden burst in colorful almond blossoms. The trees were blooming faster than bees could do a good job in pollinating.

Still, David says the crop has come out better than expected and he anticipates a solid year – barring unforeseen circumstances that can still emerge. “I wouldn’t say it will be a knock it out of the park year, but it’s not a bad year.” Here we go with the idioms again.

This season, David had to remind almond growers about applying fungicides to prevent diseases. It was easy to forget after we went through four straight dry winters and springs.

At the same time, David – nicknamed the Almond Doctor – had to remind growers against over applying fungicides. If there weretwo to three days of rain or a huge downpour over a 24-hour period, then growers need to treat for diseases. “If it’s a passing storm, don’t worry about it.”

Field scout Jenna Mayfield says growers have been heeding David’s advice during the sporadic rain and wind storms hitting the Valley this spring. “Growers have been proactive. They don’t want to run the risk of diseases affecting the nut set the following year.”

Signs of shot hole damage.
Jenna is seeing signs of shot hole diseases in trees. The fungus survives on infected twigs and as spores in healthy buds, according to UC IPM. Spores are moved around by water – either rain or irrigation. The diseasedevelops during prolonged periods of wetness. The signs are spots on leaves, twigs and fruit. Ultimately, “shot hole can cause losses in yield, defoliation, and weakened trees,” UC IPM says.

Meanwhile in the fields, field scout Carlos Silva says the last of the alfalfa fields have been harvested in the Valley. Growers are now headed toward their third cutting of the year. Pests are under control but lygus bug counts are on the rise. That means growers that have cotton fields nearby will need to practice the good neighbor policy next month and leave strips of uncut alfalfa as a habitat for lygus. You don’t want these pests fleeing to the cotton fields.

Carlos has been taking a census of the cotton crop. He estimates plant stand establishment at 35,000 to 45,000 plants per acre. UC IPM says the optimal stand establishment is 40,000 to 60,000 plants per acre. Anything under 30,000 is weak and over 60,000 is excessive, which can lead to insect and disease problems down the road. Overall, he says, “everything is growing nicely.” 

Workshop Alert: Growers can learn about how to better conduct surface irrigation activities, including furrow, border and irrigation systems in a free workshop from 9 a.m. to noon on June 3 at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, 9240 S. Riverbend Ave., Parlier. Speakers include our friend Dan Munk, UCCE advisor in Fresno County; Daniele Zaccaria, UCCE specialist at the UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources; Eduardo Bautisa, of the USDA ARS Water Management and Conservation Research unit in Arizona, and Khaled Balie, UCCE director in Imperial County. For more information, contact Dan at (559) 241-7515 or email him at

Monday, May 16, 2016

What a Tame Godzilla El Niño Means to SJ Valley Crops

After a normal rain season in the San Joaquin Valley, the dreaded “D” word cropped up a week ago after Gov. Jerry Brown handed down an executive order declaring our Golden State is still golden brown.
Yes, the drought is still with us.  
Of course, no one was surprised by the news, especially west side farmers who learned in April that federal water allocations would be a meager 5 percent. We also knew the“Godzilla El Niño” we were told would to produce gully washers from the sky had fizzled. Instead of Noah’s Ark type storms, we saw a more seasonal rainy season.

Still, no one is complaining about a wet year. Any rain was welcomed. At least we fared better than our cohorts in SoCal.

Here’s an interesting Weather Service map that shows rainfall for Northern California and the San Joaquin Valley was above normal through March while the south state remained brown and dry. 

Water politics aside, what does this mean to farmers – four dry years followed by a normal rain season. We asked alfalfa and cotton expert Dr. Pete Goodell of UC IPM about his thoughts.

Pete said the rains spurred weed growth in alfalfa fields during the dry spell in February.

 “I found adult lygus bugs in weeds in the (alfalfa) fields back in February, which was really, really early. They hadn’t reproduced yet,” Pete says. “The more rainfall we have the more weeds we have.” March and April turned out to be nice wet months, enough to spur more “green material” to grow in the spring and become habitat for worms and lygus bugs to flourish. UC IPM notes that more than 200 different weeds can serve as hosts for the lygus bug.

Weeds growing among alfalfa.
“I would anticipate that lygus in cotton would be as bad as it was last year.” Pete advises growers to keeping a close watch for lygusbugs at the “earliest square set.” This pest is a big threat when cotton is most vulnerable – from about mid-May to late July. 

A field of freshly cut alfalfa is turned over for drying.
What’s the problem? Well, alfalfa and cotton fields are often neighbors. While lygus bugs prefer life in alfalfa, they will migrate to nearby cotton fields after their homes are disturbed – namely during alfalfa cutting.

Field scout Carlos Silva reports growers have wrapped up their alfalfa second harvest and it will be important for them to take steps during next month’s cutting to minimize lygus bug migration into cotton. We’ll cover pest management strategies throughout the season. 
Alfalfa bales await hauling after the 2nd harvest of the year.

The good news is Carlos isn’t finding any major pest issues in alfalfa and cotton right now. “Cotton looks good and well established.” Cotton plants are at first or second true leaf.

Meanwhile, field scout Jenna Mayfield says almonds are looking good, too, with pest numbers in check. “The nuts are pretty consistent in size.”

Growers are staying on top of tree diseases by applying fungicides. “Everyone is being pretty proactive,” Jenna says. 

Next week, Merced County UCCE pomologist David Doll – aka the Almond Doctor – offers his thoughts about the drought and its effect on almonds this year.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Spring Scenes from Almond Orchards to Cotton Fields

It has been quite a sight driving around the San Joaquin Valley in the past week. Like a scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting, we saw a deep blue sky and puffy white clouds towering over an expansive farmscape.

We saw acres and acres of lush almond orchards with trees brimming with developing nuts destined for markets across the globe.

“The nut set is really nice this year. The nuts are really large,” says field scout Jenna Mayfield.
Down the highway, farmers were harvesting alfalfa for the second time this season – providing valuable feed for the state’s dairy industry. Nearby, we saw cotton seedlings swaying in the breeze.

“I’m seeing signs of the first true leaf in cotton,” field scout Carlos Silva points out. The true leaf shows up above the two cotyledons that develop first on the cotton seedling. True leaf signals the plant is moving into the vegetative growth stage.

Pests are under control in cotton. Carlos is finding some spider mites and a few pockets of thrips in some fields but nothing to worry about right now.

Army beetworm.
Farmers should finish harvesting alfalfa this week and start irrigating for a third harvest later this spring. Aphid and weevil counts are low in alfalfa.

Alfalfa caterpillar. - UC IPM photo
Life is good in farm country. Or is it?

Carlos reports a curious find during his alfalfa field checks – one or two alfalfa caterpillars and armyworms per sweep of his sweep net. That’s well below the 10 per sweep threshold. Yet, his find is usual for this early in the season. Normally, growers start watching for these pests in the early summer – sometimes as early as late May. Perhaps, it’s just a blip … or not. Carlos will keep an eye out for these pests.

Almond growers are treating for pests and diseases.
Jenna reports the recent thunderstorms and scattered rain coupled by warm humid conditions continues to be a concern to almond growers. There continues to be fungicide applications in orchards. She’s noticing some growers are applying miticides. These “growers are trying to knock down the mites early,” Jenna says.

The leaffooted plant bug remains high on the watch list. One bit of good news from some orchards where Jenna found evidence of gummosis turned out fine. Jenna cut cross sections of the sample and discovered no signs of damage in the soft meat.
Jenna points out the unsettled weather could create ripe conditions for pest problems down the road.
For now, though, it’s so far, so good for almonds, alfalfa and cotton in the Valley.