INSIDE Chico State
0 May 16, 2002
Volume 32 Number 16
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Agriculture Research Projects Look Back to the Future


Wes Patton, Agriculture, stands in a developing organic prune orchard at the University Farm. Sheep are replacing mowers and herbicides in this revival of an age-old method.

Photo by Kathleen McPartland

Professor Wes Patton and his agriculture students are researching the future by resurrecting some time-honored methods from the past.


Organic Prunes

Hit by the prune industry overproduction slump in 2001, the university prune orchard was reduced from 42 to 10 acres, which are now being converted to organic production. Herbicide spraying was stopped, promoting a lush undergrowth of clover that fixes nitrogen and puts it back into the soil for the trees.

But even beneficial undergrowth can get out of hand, and that’s where Patton and his sheep management team came in, proposing to put in 100 sheep to control the undergrowth—an age-old method of vegetation management. His team includes four agriculture students, a staff livestock technician, and two industry advisers.

Fifty sheep started grazing in late April, with 50 more to be added in May. “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to help the organic prune team on their way to creating an organic orchard,” Patton said, “and also to demonstrate how sheep can be used for clearing ground cover in an organic orchard.”

Patton expects to attract student teams from the Applied Agriculture Research Class, who will design, conduct, and report on projects such as determining the effect of the sheep on soil compaction, tree damage, forage removal, required stocking densities, economics, and ecological soundness.


Rotational Grazing

“A flock should never hear the same church bell twice.” Another Patton/student project harks back to such old-time wisdom with rotational grazing at their Meridian Range Project on 240 acres of grazing land donated to Chico State in the 1960s.

Patton became interested in improving production of grasses, clovers, and legumes for grazing livestock on the range, located 12 miles north of Chico off Meridian Road and east of Highway 99, which has always been used to winter beef cattle.

As well as testing new plant species and soil amendments (fertilizers), Patton and his students decided to implement a rotational grazing system, also called management intensive grazing, which simulates the way wild herds of ruminant animals like bison used to graze rangeland.
For rotational grazing, the range was subdivided into seven pastures. The cattle graze on each area for six days or fewer, so they always have fresh, clean pasture, and they don’t return for 20 to 30 days, to allow the plants to rest and regrow.

The animals can’t be selective, Patton said. They eat the weeds, grass, clover, whatever is growing. “This gives the good plants equal opportunity with the weeds, and over time the good plants will become more prevalent.”
The animals are healthier, as they always get highly nutritious plants to eat. Patton said that intensive grazing also allows animals to “leave their troubles behind,” as the life of parasites and the incubation period of common diseases is only one week.

Although new grasses introduced by the project have not thrived so far—perhaps due to lack of rain and heavy frost—in the first season there was nearly a threefold increase in forage production of the grasses and plants already there. Patton credits the unexpected increase to the rotational grazing and a combination of two minimal soil amendments: beet lime and ammonium sulfate.

The project, now in its second year, received a CSU Agricultural Research Initiative (ARI) grant, as well as matching donated services. Full results will be reported in December 2002.


Yellow Star Thistle

A subpart of the Meridian Range study was using sheep instead of chemicals to reduce the amount of yellow star thistle (a.k.a. “Public Plant Enemy #1” for its infestation of more than eight million California acres).
This part of the project was funded by the California Sheep Commission. “It was really educational for the students,” said Patton. “They wrote the proposal, did the PowerPoint presentation to the 30-member commission, and, in fall 2000, received $4,000 in funding, $1,000 more than they asked for.” In fall 2001, they received another $2,500 to continue the study for a second cycle. They also received matching ARI grants in 2000 and 2001 for this study.

“We wanted to put some sound science behind a practice that has been around for many years,” Patton said. The research results will be published in December as a guidebook for homeowners, farm owners, and anyone who wants to control yellow star thistle with sheep.

“It is somewhat unique that we are able to weave undergraduates into these research projects,” Patton stated. “We do a lot of things for our undergraduates that other institutions reserve for faculty and graduate students.”

Francine Gair

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