Long-term reduced tillage and winter cover crops can improve soil quality without depleting moisture
California Agriculture 77(1):4-14. https://doi.org/10.3733/ca.2023a0001
Published online May 01, 2023
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California farmers who use reduced-disturbance tillage and winter cover cropping can boost production and improve soil health. However, some farmers are hesitant to try these conservation practices due to uncertainty about whether planting winter cover crops will deplete soil moisture in already drought-stricken regions. Our study addresses these concerns by looking at how long-term reduced-disturbance tillage and winter cover cropping, compared to fallowed soils with standard tillage, affected soil moisture. Although we found a statistical difference in total soil water content, the difference was only about 0.3 inches of water per foot of soil. On average, the soil water content of the top 0–96 inches was highest for the reduced-disturbance fields with winter cover crops. This was especially evident during our driest field season, from November 1, 2017, to March 15, 2018, when cumulative rainfall was only 1.9 inches. Our findings show that winter cover cropping and reduced-disturbance tillage can improve soil without depleting soil water levels in row crops.