Cover Crops Benefit California Citrus Grower

Len WilcoxCalifornia Corner, Cover Crops

cover crops
Cover crops are being used at Petty Ranch in Ventura County, California, where lemons and avocados are produced.

A California citrus grower says he has substantially increased water retention and decreased irrigation usage by planting cover crops. Chris Sayer, of Petty Ranch, says he has added about 3 percent organic content to his soil, which has reduced irrigation water usage from 2 acre feet to 1.25 to 1.5 acre feet.

Chris Sayer

Sayer is a fifth-generation Ventura County farmer. He is a conventional grower of citrus and avocados, but uses organic techniques such as cover crops and beneficial insects when those methods provide the best results. He defines his style of farming as “resilient agriculture,” maintaining the soil and trees in their best condition to be able to handle extremes of temperature or drought.

The heart of resilient agriculture is using cover crops, which Sayer began in 2005.

“Cover crops have done wonderful things for us,” he said. “We have doubled the amount of organic content in our soil. On our 50 acres, it equates to about 2.5 million gallons of water we retain for crop use after the rainy season ends.”

Sayer tills the cover crop in each year and replants just before the first rain of the season. He uses a mixture of grains such as barley, rye and triticale, a legume such as clover for nitrogen, and mustard for its deep roots.

The cover crop has more than 20 different species in it, and he changes the formula from time to time. “We mix it up, to try to give our soil the advantage of crop rotation.”

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Cover crop in summer

Sayer credits the cover crop with helping to extend the life of his older trees. “We have some blocks that my grandfather planted 50 years ago,” he said. “We are in the process of replacing them now, but we got an extra 10 years of production from them because of the soil improvements we have done.”

There is some extra expense to the cover crop, but Sayer says it is minimal and is more than offset by the benefits. Costs include seed, planting, mowing two or three times a year and disking the crop at the start of the rainy season. Sayer feels it is a bargain price for the additional organic content that is added into the soil.

But the cover crop does more than add organic content. It also provides habitat for beneficial insects.

“We have found it helps with our biocontrol programs,” says Sayer. He explains that the farm uses beneficial insects when it is cost effective. Presently, the farm releases a parasitic wasp (Aphytis melinus) to combat citrus red scale and yellow scale. Cryptolaemus beetles are used to control mealybugs.

In addition to the beneficials intentionally released, Sayer observed an increase in ladybugs in the groves. As a generalist predator, ladybugs are a welcome addition and may be helping to keep the presence of Asian citrus psyllids (ACP) under control. Both ladybugs and Cryptolaemus beetles feed on ACP.

“The cover crop does a lot for us,” in improving the soil and general health of the orchard, Sayer concludes. “There is a big return on investment in the water savings. I’d love to see cover crops in more citrus orchards.”

Editor’s Note: Read about a Florida citrus grower who has also seen success with cover crops.

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Len Wilcox

Correspondent at Large for Citrus Industry Magazine and AgNet West