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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Impacts of winter cover cropping on soil moisture and evapotranspiration in California's specialty crop fields may be minimal during winter months

  • Author(s): DeVincentis, Alyssa;
  • Solis, Samuel Sandoval;
  • Rice, Sloane;
  • Zaccaria, Daniele;
  • Snyder, Richard L;
  • Maskey, Mahesh L;
  • Gomes, Anna;
  • Gaudin, Amélie;
  • Mitchell, Jeffrey P
  • et al.

As fresh water supplies become more unreliable, variable and expensive, the water-related implications of sustainable agriculture practices such as cover cropping are drawing increasing attention from California's agricultural communities. However, the adoption of winter cover cropping remains limited among specialty crop growers who face uncertainty regarding the water use of this practice. To investigate how winter cover crops affect soil water and evapotranspiration on farm fields, we studied three systems that span climatic and farming conditions in California's Central Valley: processing tomato fields with cover crop, almond orchards with cover crop, and almond orchards with native vegetation. From 2016 to 2019, we collected soil moisture data (3 years of neutron hydroprobe and gravimetric tests at 10 field sites) and evapotranspiration measurements (2 years at two of 10 sites) in winter cover cropped and control (clean-cultivated, bare ground) plots during winter months. Generally, there were not significant differences in soil moisture between cover cropped and control fields throughout or at the end of the winter seasons, while evapo-transpirative losses due to winter cover crops were negligible relative to clean-cultivated soil. Our results suggest that winter cover crops in the Central Valley may break even in terms of actual consumptive water use. California growers of high-value specialty crops can likely adopt winter cover cropping without altering their irrigation plans and management practices.

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