From the Fields®

Issue Date: May 9, 2018
By Peter Bradford, Mendocino County forester

The feed for livestock is coming on strong. We all are hoping that it doesn't heat up too quickly, so the grasses continue to grow.

Cattle and calves are now not having to work too hard to get a full belly and aren't really that interested in hay. Rainfall is still considerably less than a "normal" year. We are under 25 inches. However, we can still expect rainfall in May and hopefully June.

Vineyards are starting to bud out. In forestry, you had to have the first set of spotted owl calls for this season done by last Sunday.

Issue Date: May 9, 2018
By Bruce Fry, San Joaquin County winegrape grower

The vines are about seven to 10 days later than last year, which was strange because of all that rain we had last year. With all that rain, the vines are cold, but they seem to grow faster. We've had a good spring so far. Those very timely spring rains helped fill the soil profile, which will help the vines through spring and summer so we can save on irrigation.

Crew-wise, we are still short on labor. This is a continuing problem. All of our inputs are costing a lot more every year, so we are taking a close look at mechanization.

One thing that we are looking at and that we are going to try this year is chemical suckering of the suckers on the grapevine trunks. This will reduce our labor costs, because the crews can then focus on the tops of the vines rather than the entire vines. We are using several different materials to see what works the best. This should save us some time and money.

We are applying chemicals and sulfur to the vines right now to protect against mildew. The crop level looks better than last year, but bloom won't happen until mid-May, so we are still off of that. Everything as of now looks better than last year.

Last year, we bought a new piece of property. It had an old vineyard that we tore out and we are leaving the field fallow this year. We will go back into grapes and have decided to plant chardonnay.

Issue Date: May 9, 2018
By Norm Yenni, Sonoma County hay grower

Never second-guess Mother Nature. This February, things looked like we were going to be way short of rainfall for our hay, so we planted the spring crop about three weeks early. We had the best kill pre-plant in many years, and the herbicides worked in textbook fashion. Then came the March and April rains, and we are looking at a bumper crop.

In true farmer fashion, I don't count chickens before they're hatched. With the late rains come the potential for leaf rust in the hay, and some of the heavier crops have fallen down from the wind and rain. That can sink quality in a heartbeat. It still looks like a profitable year. I wish the dairies would start making some money and buoy the hay prices up.

Anytime hay crops are good, pasture is good also, so that will bring hay prices down a little. With little carryover from 2017's crop, that is not a big concern.

Vineyards are going full tilt with their activities. This morning, I saw a helicopter dusting some vines on ground too wet for tractor sprayers. I haven't seen that in April for many years.

Sonoma County is actively working to get our groundwater sustainability agencies, or GSAs, together and funded. Not sure we're doing the right thing or the right way, but we have to do something.

Issue Date: May 9, 2018
By Pete Verburg, Stanislaus County dairy farmer

We’re still fighting low milk prices. That’s always topic No. 1, no matter who you meet with. Beef prices have gotten a little bit stronger. I’m not saying we can live on beef, but it’s part of our business.

We are completely done chopping all of our winter forage. Because we had such late rains, there’s a lot of winter forage around our area that didn’t look very good. The crop just sat there and struggled all winter trying to grow, but it had no moisture. We had months of no rain.

When it finally did start raining, it was a little too late already. For a lot of people, it was a little past time because they didn’t irrigate their ground with well water. A lot of them can’t do it. We went ahead and irrigated all of ours, so I had a pretty decent crop and nice yield. My neighbor didn’t do worth a darn. There was just not a lot of tonnage out there.

We just finished pre-irrigating all of the ground and soon we will be reworking the ground and getting our corn put in.

Milk production has been great because we did have a dry winter, which in turn means a lot less mastitis. The cows weren’t stressed out because of too much rain. Of course, we have free-stall barns, but even with free-stall barns, if it’s wet constantly, that moisture or humidity will get through the barns, and that affects the cows. They’re not going to produce less milk, but you’re going to have more issues with mastitis and breeding issues.

We’re lucky this year the cows were only in the free-stall barns for four months. Last year, when we had that real wet year, the cows were in the free-stall barns for five and a half months. The most comfortable place for a cow to be when not in a free-stall barn is in an open corral. But you can’t put them in an open corral when it’s raining.

Because we’re able to put cows in free-stall barns, we never see spring flush anymore. We used to increase milk production like crazy in the spring because you’ve got nice weather and the cows are outside in a dry corral. I don’t think our production increases by five pounds in the spring compared to what it was during the winter.

I’m anticipating that the federal milk order (for California) will go through. We’re a couple of weeks away from knowing if it passed or not. I’m pretty sure it’s going to pass because the co-ops bloc voted. From the people that I know and how they feel about it, I’m fairly sure it’s going to pass. I’m going to be real surprised if it doesn’t.

We’ve got a great water year as far as the Modesto Irrigation District. They’re going to give us 42 inches.

Issue Date: May 9, 2018
By George Tibbetts, Colusa County rice grower

It wasn't a particularly wet winter, but the sequence of storms we had in April kept us out of the field until well into April. When we finally started ground work, the fields were still a bit wetter than I would have liked. Nevertheless, we started up to accelerate the drying process and prepare a nice seed bed for rice. In early May we started water in our first field, with four more to go. We are really scrambling to get all of our fields planted by the 15th of May, which is always our goal in order to take full advantage of the growing season.

Prices have firmed up from where they were a year ago. Most of the 2017 California rice crop has been sold or has been spoken for, so there is definitely not a surplus on hand to deal with as we head into producing the 2018 crop.

I've heard that we will have about 500,000 to 525,000 acres of rice in the state this year, which is pretty close to our historical average. Hopefully, yields will be up from the disappointing level we had last year.

Issue Date: April 25, 2018
By Steve McShane, Monterey County nursery producer

Spring has sprung in Monterey County and with it comes the return of vegetables from the desert. Cauliflower and broccoli have kicked off and romaine should start soon. Iceberg lettuce is still a few weeks out. Cauliflower is breaking even and broccoli is in the tank.

Late rains drenched local strawberries and as a result crews will be picking and dropping the unmarketable berries.

The biggest issue continues to be labor, specifically, H-2A housing. Beds that ran $100 per week just two years ago are now $150 per week and up. Water is also an ongoing concern. We have enough reservoir storage for this year. However, if we don't get rain next year, we'll face the kind of disaster we did in 2016, when south county wells went dry and saltwater intrusion was its worst.

Ultimately, the Salinas Valley Salad Bowl is planted similar to 2017, and we can only hope for strong markets.

Issue Date: April 25, 2018
By Kevin Merrill, Santa Barbara County winegrape grower

We have only received about 50 percent of our annual rainfall amount for the season here along the Central Coast.

Bud break in our vineyards was 10 days early, thanks to the warm days of January and early February. As sometimes happens, that early, false spring was followed by two weeks of unseasonably cold weather with many growers frost-protecting their vines for 12 to 15 nights in early March. Time will tell how much damage was caused by those cold nights in vineyards without frost protection.

Our crews started shoot-thinning pinot noir last week and we are applying our third sulfur spray on vines with 6 to 10 inches of growth. The potential fruit set in the pinot noir looks average, currently.

The weather, like always, is the joker in the deck as we approach bloom time. We continue to go back and forth between days in the low 90s followed by days in the 60s, with sporadic light rain forecast over the next few weeks.

We continue to work our way through the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act process in the San Antonio Basin near Los Alamos. I currently sit on the newly formed Groundwater Sustainability Agency board, which takes a lot of time. Growers throughout the basin are working on how to pay for another unfunded mandate from Sacramento.

So far, we have been able to find people to fill our crews. As the strawberry season gets into full swing in the Santa Maria area, we anticipate keeping our crews full to be an issue, along with rising costs. We continue to mechanically prune, shoot-thin and remove leaves to help augment the expensive and shrinking labor force.

Every year is different, bringing its own unique challenges; 2018 is certainly no exception.

Issue Date: April 25, 2018
By Jenny Holtermann, Kern County almond grower

After a wet March, there is much activity happening in the fields right now.

As the nuts are developing, we are experiencing increased humidity from irrigation and seasonal storms. This is causing rust to become a potential threat. Many are treating for rust as well as navel orangeworm before the onset of increased damage.

Some growers have also seen plant bug damage. This is mainly isolated to field edges and exposed rows. If not controlled, the plant bug will sting the almonds as they are developing, causing stains on the nut or nut drop.

Almond root zones are still pretty dry, which is causing us to irrigate. We are also fertilizing right now. The almond shoots and nuts are starting to grow more, and fertilizer will help in aiding tree and nut development.

Many are starting to see the crop set and make estimates for harvest. Some subjective almond estimates have been released. Crop size varies across the state, as damage from bloom time storms caused varying degrees of loss. Varieties that were in bloom during unseasonable colder weather were hurt the most.

Issue Date: April 25, 2018
By Joe Colace, Imperial County diversified grower

We are in the front end of the sweet corn harvest. We started two weeks ago and we are dealing with good corn quality and production. But the very first week of harvest was certainly impacted by the late February-early March cold temperatures. We had a frost situation that hit on Feb. 22, when temperatures in the Imperial Valley got into the upper 20s. It was reflected on the first couple of our fields. But since then, we are harvesting a very nice product and I would say right on schedule.

The melons will start around the first of May and that crop looks encouraging. I wouldn't say it is a heavy set, but it is an adequate set. We will start with the cantaloupes and later in May we will start with the honeydew and variety melons.

We are good with water. Obviously, there is plenty of discussion about water availability, but we are good right now. There is always concern when we don't have at least an average watershed year. The last I saw, the Sierra was running around 55 percent of normal, depending on what area you were in. And the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains were in the mid-60 percent range. That is a little bit discouraging, but right now the water is good.

The labor is good. It may be a little bit tighter than what we have seen in the past, but acreage is down on some of the more sensitive produce crops such as onions, sweet corn and melons. So, I think we will be fine with labor supplies. We aren't in the heart of spring harvest, which really begins around the first of May.

Our commodities—the onions, the sweet corn and the melons—are all domestic supplies, so we aren't impacted by the trade wars.

Issue Date: April 25, 2018
By Steve Wiley, Monterey County seed producer

The Central Coast has been on a roller coaster ride this winter with regard to our weather patterns. We've experienced record winter highs, major gaps in rainfall and modest lows for chilling-hour accumulation.

Most recently, we received March and April rains that have been most helpful for our precipitation totals, but still have not gotten us up to normal for the season. Our two reservoirs are at 53 percent (Nacimiento) and 34 percent (San Antonio), but have received only 50 percent year to date rainfall totals compared to last season.

The success of overwintered vegetable seed crops (mainly brassicas) on the Central Coast will reflect the variable nature of the winter season's weather. While early warm weather in October and November allowed the transplanted crops to grow sturdy plants, the vernalization necessary to initiate seed stalk bolting occurred during a very narrow window and was followed by unseasonably warm and dry weather in January and February.

Then the rains came and the weather cooled off again in March. Seed set might be erratic and split, but at least there were no hard freezes that could have killed any crops. Spring plantings are on time.

Fresh produce markets are modest now, as vegetable growers transition back from the desert to the coast. Groundwater management is as usual the hot topic that continues to evolve. The Salinas Basin Agricultural Stewardship Group and Salinas Agricultural Water Association are getting critical mass for managing our precious groundwater resources, and we hope to be a model for successful cooperation as these groups gain consensus and push forward.

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