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Eric B. Brennan and Richard F. Smith

Strawberry (Fragaria ×ananassa Duch.) production in California uses plastic mulch–covered beds that provide many benefits such as moisture conservation and weed control. Unfortunately, the mulch can also cause environmental problems by increasing runoff and soil erosion and reducing groundwater recharge. Planting cover crops in bare furrows between the plastic cover beds can help minimize these problems. Furrow cover cropping was evaluated during two growing seasons in organic strawberries in Salinas, CA, using a mustard (Sinapis alba L.) cover crop planted at two seeding rates (1× and 3×). Mustard was planted in November or December after strawberry transplanting and it resulted in average densities per meter of furrow of 54 and 162 mustard plants for the 1× and 3× rates, respectively. The mustard was mowed in February before it shaded the strawberry plants. Increasing the seeding rate increased mustard shoot biomass and height, and reduced the concentration of P in the mustard shoots. Compared with furrows with no cover crop, cover-cropped furrows reduced weed biomass by 29% and 40% in the 1× and 3× seeding rates, respectively, although weeds still accounted for at least 28% of the furrow biomass in the cover-cropped furrows. These results show that growing mustard cover crops in furrows without irrigating the furrows worked well even during years with relatively minimal precipitation. We conclude that 1) mustard densities of ≈150 plants/m furrow will likely provide the most benefits due to greater biomass production, N scavenging, and weed suppression; 2) mowing was an effective way to kill the mustard; and 3) high seeding rates of mustard alone are insufficient to provide adequate weed suppression in strawberry furrows.

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Richard F. Smith, Louise E. Jackson and Tiffany A. Bensen

Lettuce growers in the Salinas Valley are often not able to rotate to other crops due to economic pressure, such as high land rent. Winter-grown cover crops (October to March) provide a short-term rotation from lettuce and have been shown to reduce nitrate leaching by 75%. However, the use of winter-grown cover crops is low due to the extended time these cover crops tie up the ground. As a result, growers are interested in the potential of fall-grown cover crops (September to October) to reduce nitrate leaching through the winter. Fall-grown cover crops are incorporated into the soil prior to the onset of winter rains and leave the soil bare over the winter; however, during fall growth, the cover crop has the potential to capture excess nitrate that may leach during the fallow period, but how much has not been previously measured. A long-term trial was established in Fall 2003 using treatments of Indian mustard (B. juncea) `ISCI 61', White mustard (S. alba) `Ida Gold', Cereal rye (Secale cereale) `Merced', and a no cover crop control. All cover crops contained ≈224 kg·ha-1 N upon incorporation. Anion resin bags were installed 90 cm deep in the soil following incorporation to trap leaching nitrate; they were left in place until planting of the lettuce the following spring. First-year results indicated that the mustard cover crops and `Merced' rye all reduced nitrate leaching to the 90-cm depth by 67% to 82% over the bare fallow treatment. These results indicate that fall-grown cover crops have the potential to reduce nitrate leaching in lettuce production systems in the Salinas Valley.

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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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Howard F. Harrison Jr., D. Michael Jackson, Judy A. Thies, Richard L. Fery and J. Powell Smith

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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.

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Howard F. Harrison, Judy A. Thies, Richard L. Fery and J. Powell Smith

A preliminary screening experiment was conducted to evaluate 47 cowpea [Vigna unguiculata (L.) Walp.] genotypes for use as a weed-suppressing cover crop. Of these, 11 were selected for further testing on the basis of vigorous growth and weed-suppressing ability. In a field experiment repeated over 4 years, the selected genotypes were not different from the leading cover crop cultivar `Iron Clay' in biomass production. Vigor ratings, vine growth ratings, and canopy widths of some genotypes exceeded those of `Iron Clay' Vigor ratings and canopy measurements were efficient selection criteria that could be useful for breeding cover crop cowpea cultivars. All except one selection were highly resistant to southern root knot nematode [Meloidogyne incognita (Kofoid and White) Chitwood], and the selections varied in seed size, photoperiod, and response to foliar diseases.

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Howard F. Harrison, Judy A. Thies, Richard L. Fery and J. Powell Smith

A preliminary screening experiment was conducted to evaluate 47 cowpea [Vigna unguiculata, (L.) Walp.] genotypes for use as a weed-suppressing cover crop. Lines evaluated in this study included forage varieties, PI accessions, experimental breeding lines, and land races of unknown origin. Of these, 11 were selected for further testing on the basis of vigorous growth and weed-suppressing ability. In a field experiment repeated over 4 years, the selected genotypes were not different from the leading cover crop cultivar, `Iron Clay', in biomass production. Vigor ratings, vine growth ratings, and canopy widths of some genotypes exceeded those of `Iron Clay'. Vigor ratings and canopy measurements were efficient selection criteria that could be useful for breeding cover crop cowpea cultivars. All selections except an African cultivar, `Lalita', were highly resistant to southern root knot nematode [Meloidogyne incognita (Kofoid and White) Chitwood], and the genotypes varied in seed size, photoperiod, and response to diseases.

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Joji Muramoto, Richard F. Smith, Carol Shennan, Karen M. Klonsky, James Leap, Miriam Silva Ruiz and Stephen R. Gliessman

Legume/cereal mixed winter cover crops are commonly used by organic growers on the central coast of California, but they are unable to provide sufficient nitrogen (N) for a high N-demanding vegetable crop such as broccoli and supplemental fertilizer application may be necessary. The goals of this project were to evaluate the contribution of N from a mixed legume/cereal cover crop (CC) and feather meal and blood meal as organic fertilizers (OF) to an organic broccoli crop and to evaluate economic benefits of CC and OF to the subsequent organic broccoli crop. Trials were conducted at two sites (A and B) with different management histories. Cover crops were grown over the winter and incorporated into the soil in the spring and subsequently broccoli [Brassica oleracea L. (Italica group)] was grown in 2006 at both sites and in 2007 at B only. Cover crop and no CC treatments were grown with supplemental organic fertilizers at four fertility levels (0, 84, 168, and 252 kg N/ha of OF) with four replicates. Generally broccoli head yields at A (14.9 to 26.3 Mg·ha−1) were higher than at B (0.7 to 17.4 Mg·ha−1 in 2006 and 5.5 to 17.9 Mg·ha−1 in 2007). Yield and aboveground biomass N were significantly increased by OF at rates up to 168 kg N/ha at A and to 252 kg N/ha at B and by CC in 2006 at both sites but not in 2007 at B. Although N content of the CC was similarly low at A (2006) and at B (2007), immobilization of soil mineral N occurred only at B. This suggests that the addition of a low N content CC was offset by high N mineralization from the soil at A with a long organic management history (greater than 33 years). Supplemental fertilizer applications may be necessary to achieve optimal yields, but the amount needed can be reduced by cover cropping in fields with a long history of cover crop-based organic management (A) or when cover crop N content is sufficiently high to prevent immobilization (B, 2006). Soil NO3-N patterns suggest a pre-side dress nitrate test may also be useful for N management in organic broccoli. Use of cover crops increased net return above harvest and fertility costs when the yield reduction by N immobilization did not take place. However, the net return increase by the use of cover crops tended to diminish as the rate of OF application increased.