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Michael D. Cahn and Husein A. Ajwa

Agricultural runoff is a source of nutrients and sediments in surface water on the central coast of California. Treating soils with high molecular weight anionic polyacrylamide (PAM) may reduce sediments and P lost from furrow and sprinkler irrigated fields by maintaining infiltration and stabilizing soil aggregates. We conducted column and field studies to quantify the effect of PAM on infiltration rate, run off, and sediment and nutrient (ortho and total P, NO3, K) loss from cool season vegetable fields. Column studies demonstrated a reduction in infiltration for 10 soil types when PAM was continuously applied in the irrigation water at 10 ppm. Recirculating infiltrometer studies showed that in furrow systems, PAM, applied only in the initial water at 10 ppm, had no significant effect on infiltration at four of six sites evaluated. Turbidity and total suspended solids were significantly reduced in the PAM treated water. Across all sites, treatment with PAM reduced suspended solids by 85% compared to the untreated control. Additionally, soluble and total P, and total N were reduced in the PAM treated water. PAM had no effect on nitrate or salt levels in the runoff. PAM applied through sprinklers at a 5 ppm concentration was able to significantly reduce the turbidity and the suspended solids in the tailwater. Similar to the results obtained with the recirculation infiltrometer trials, PAM reduced soluble and total P and total N in the runoff, but had no significant effect on NO3-N. Total sediment loss under sprinklers was reduced by as much as 95% using PAM.

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Renée L. Eriksen, Caleb Knepper, Michael D. Cahn, and Beiquan Mou

After a preliminary screening of over 3500 cultivars, we selected 200 butterhead, cos, crisphead, leaf, and stem lettuce (Lactuca sativa L.) and wild prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola L.) varieties to test under high water (150% evapotranspiration [ET]) and low water (50% ET) conditions in the field, and tracked commercially relevant traits related to growth and marketability, maturity, and physiology. Plants typically reduced growth and appeared to reallocate developmental resources to achieve maturity quickly, as indicated by traits such as increased core length. This strategy may allow them to complete their life cycle before severe drought stress proves lethal. Although most cultivars experienced a reduction in growth under low water conditions relative to high water conditions, some cultivars had a significantly reduced yield penalty under stress conditions. Among the different types of lettuce, the fresh weight (FW) of cos cultivars was most affected by drought stress, and the FW of leaf lettuce was least affected. Cos cultivars tended to bolt early. Crisphead cultivars Cal-West 80, Heatmaster, and Marion produced large heads and did not bolt under low water treatments, and butterhead cultivars Buttercrunch and Bibb also produced relatively large heads with very little bolting and no signs of tipburn. The four green leaf cultivars Slobolt, Grand Rapids, Western Green, and Australian showed no statistically significant difference in FW among high and low water treatments in multiple trials, and may be good choices for growers who wish to minimize losses under reduced irrigation. The identification of potentially drought-tolerant varieties and the information from this study may be helpful for cultivar selection by growers under drought conditions, but this study also serves as a step forward in the genetic improvement of lettuce to drought stress.

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Thomas G. Bottoms, Richard F. Smith, Michael D. Cahn, and Timothy K. Hartz

As concern over NO3-N pollution of groundwater increases, California lettuce growers are under pressure to improve nitrogen (N) fertilizer efficiency. Crop growth, N uptake, and the value of soil and plant N diagnostic measures were evaluated in 24 iceberg and romaine lettuce (Lactuca sativa L. var. capitata L., and longifolia Lam., respectively) field trials from 2007 to 2010. The reliability of presidedressing soil nitrate testing (PSNT) to identify fields in which N application could be reduced or eliminated was evaluated in 16 non-replicated strip trials and five replicated trials on commercial farms. All commercial field sites had greater than 20 mg·kg−1 residual soil NO3-N at the time of the first in-season N application. In the strip trials, plots in which the cooperating growers’ initial sidedress N application was eliminated or reduced were compared with the growers’ standard N fertilization program. In the replicated trials, the growers’ N regime was compared with treatments in which one or more N fertigation through drip irrigation was eliminated. Additionally, seasonal N rates from 11 to 336 kg·ha−1 were compared in three replicated drip-irrigated research farm trials. Seasonal N application in the strip trials was reduced by an average of 77 kg·ha−1 (73 kg·ha−1 vs. 150 kg·ha−1 for the grower N regime) with no reduction in fresh biomass produced and only a slight reduction in crop N uptake (151 kg·ha−1 vs. 156 kg·ha−1 for the grower N regime). Similarly, an average seasonal N rate reduction of 88 kg·ha−1 (96 kg·ha−1 vs. 184 kg·ha−1) was achieved in the replicated commercial trials with no biomass reduction. Seasonal N rates between 111 and 192 kg·ha−1 maximized fresh biomass in the research farm trials, which were conducted in fields with lower residual soil NO3-N than the commercial trials. Across fields, lettuce N uptake was slow in the first 4 weeks after planting, averaging less than 0.5 kg·ha−1·d−1. N uptake then increased linearly until harvest (≈9 weeks after planting), averaging ≈4 kg·ha−1·d−1 over that period. Whole plant critical N concentration (Nc, the minimum whole plant N concentration required to maximize growth) was estimated by the equation Nc (g·kg−1) = 42 − 2.8 dry mass (DM, Mg·ha−1); on that basis, critical N uptake (crop N uptake required to maintain whole plant N above Nc) in the commercial fields averaged 116 kg·ha−1 compared with the mean uptake of 145 kg·ha−1 with the grower N regime. Soil NO3-N greater than 20 mg·kg−1 was a reliable indicator that N application could be reduced or delayed. Neither leaf N nor midrib NO3-N was correlated with concurrently measured soil NO3-N and therefore of limited value in directing in-season N fertilization.

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Thomas G. Bottoms, Timothy K. Hartz, Michael D. Cahn, and Barry F. Farrara

The impact of strawberry production on nitrate contamination of groundwater is of major concern in the central coast region of California. Nitrogen (N) fertilization and irrigation management practices were monitored in a total of 26 fall-planted annual strawberry (Fragaria ×ananassa Duch.) fields in 2010 and 2011. Soil mineral N (SMN, top 30 cm depth) was determined monthly. Irrigation applied was monitored, and crop evapotranspiration (ETc) was estimated. Growers were surveyed regarding their N fertilization practices. Aboveground biomass N accumulation was estimated by monthly plant sampling in seven fields. The effect of preplant controlled-release fertilizer (CRF) rate on fruit yield was investigated in three fields. The growers’ CRF application rate (121 or 86 kg·ha−1 N as 18N–3.5P–10.8K, 7- to 9-month release rating) was compared with a half rate (all fields) and no CRF in one field. The rate of N release from this CRF product was evaluated using a buried bag technique. Median CRF N and total seasonal N application (CRF + in-season fertigation through drip irrigation) were 101 and 260 kg·ha−1, respectively, with total seasonal N application varying among fields from 141 to 485 kg·ha−1. Biomass N accumulation was slow through March (less than 25 kg·ha−1) and then increased by ≈1.1 kg·ha−1·d−1 from April through mid-September. Mean seasonal biomass N accumulation was estimated at 225 kg·ha−1 by 15 Sept. Approximately 70% of CRF N was released before 1 Apr. Biomass N accumulation between planting and April was much lower than the combined amount of CRF N release and SMN decline over that period, suggesting substantial winter N loss. Conversely, N loss during the summer harvest season (May through August) appeared limited in most fields. Median SMN was maintained below 10 mg·kg−1, and median irrigation was 113% of estimated ETc during this period. Reduction in CRF rate did not affect marketable fruit yield in two of three trials; an 8% yield reduction was observed in the remaining trial when the CRF rate was reduced, but the decline may have been affected by spring irrigation and fertigation practices.

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Timothy K. Hartz, Paul R. Johnstone, Richard F. Smith, and Michael D. Cahn

Application of calcium (Ca) fertilizers is a common practice of California lettuce growers to minimize the occurrence and severity of tipburn, particularly in romaine lettuce (Lactuca sativa L. var. longifolia Lam.). An evaluation of the effect of soil Ca availability on the severity of tipburn in romaine lettuce was conducted in the Salinas Valley of central California in 2005 to 2006. Twenty representative soils from this region were evaluated for Ca availability by ammonium acetate extraction, saturated paste extraction, and extraction of soil solution through centrifugation of soil at field-capacity moisture content. Soil solution Ca in these soils was generally high, ranging from 5 to 80 mmolc·L−1, representing 44% to 71% of cations on a charge basis. Soil solution Ca was highly correlated with saturated paste Ca (r 2 = 0.70) but not with exchangeable Ca (r 2 = 0.01). However, saturated paste extraction significantly underestimated soil solution Ca concentration (regression slope = 0.19). A survey of 15 commercial romaine lettuce fields showed tipburn severity to be unrelated to either leaf Ca concentration or soil Ca availability. The most severe tipburn was observed in fields in which transpiration was reduced by foggy weather during the final 2 weeks of growth. Ca fertilizers (calcium nitrate, calcium thiosulfate, and calcium chloride) applied through drip irrigation during the final weeks of lettuce growth were ineffective in increasing romaine leaf Ca concentration in three field trials; tipburn was present in only one trial, and Ca fertigation had no effect on tipburn severity. We conclude that under typical field conditions in this region, tipburn severity is primarily a function of environmental conditions. Soil Ca availability plays no substantive role in tipburn severity, and Ca fertigation does not improve lettuce Ca uptake or reduce tipburn.