Cover Crop Keeps Bees, Beekeepers Happy

Almond grower Gino Favagrossa plants a cover crop in his orchard not only to improve water infiltration and fix nitrogen, but also to keep bees and his beekeepers happy.

“Beehive rentals are one of the top three expenses in our budget, and we want to build long-term relationships with our beekeepers that can help guarantee us bees year in and year out,” he said.

Providing postbloom habitat for bees by planting clover cover crops in his orchard middles gives Favagrossa’s bees a food source between almond pollination and honey production that helps in building those long-term relationships with his beekeepers.

“If you are providing habitat for your beekeeper, he is going to be happy,” he stated. “I have beekeepers who leave their bees in my orchards until I need to do a May spray.”

Clover Blend

Favagrossa plants a blend of five or six annual clovers, designed specifically for almond orchards, that provide a food source for bees while also helping to fix nitrogen and improve irrigation management on his 160-acre almond orchard west of Fresno.

“I started out using a cover crop for soil enrichment and water penetration, and for me, when I started using longer-blooming seed blends, the bee forage became a secondary benefit,” he said.

Favagrossa has worked with cover crops in permanent crops for decades, first as the vineyard and orchard manager at Fresno State University, and now as a grower and custom operator at the third-generation Favagrossa Farms west of Fresno. Initially, he said, annual cover crops were key to helping improve water infiltration on tough ground at Fresno State that had difficulty “taking water.” He has a similar problem with low-permeable soils in his orchard and relies on cover crops and soil amendments to loosen the soil.

“It takes a few years, but we are finding after the third year that we can see the water get down into heavier soils,” explained Favagrossa.

Plant in Fall, Mow in June

While the cost of planting a cover crop is low, it does require some extra management, including planting in the fall and mowing by early June to allow the residue to decompose before harvest. And it requires adding the cover crop to irrigation demand calculations. Favagrossa said he uses an evapotranspiration rate closer to alfalfa than almonds to account for the cover crop when scheduling irrigations.

Favagrossa’s low-lying clover blend breaks down quickly, and he said the mat of organic matter created by the mowed crop actually seems to improve harvest pickup.

The ideal time to plant seeds is immediately after harvest, when the soil is still warm, and prior to fall rains. Favagrossa drills in seed about one-quarter-inch deep along a 7-foot strip in orchard middles by mid-October, once flood-irrigated orchards are dry enough following postharvest irrigation.

Favagrossa has traditionally farmed with flood irrigation, but is converting new blocks to microsprinklers. As he converts to micro-irrigation, he relies on rainfall to germinate the cover crop.

Reseeding Blends

Favagrossa has worked with seed companies in recent years to source low-lying legume type annual cover crop blends that reseed well and will break down at the end of the season so there is no trash to interfere with harvest. Two years ago, he reached out to Project Apis m. (PAm), which provides resources to growers, including bee-friendly seed designed specifically for almonds, along with technical assistance for planting and managing bee forage in and around almond orchards.

PAm has identified low-moisture-requiring seed mixes, seed suppliers and planting regimes specific to bee habitat in almonds, including specially blended mustard mix for fall and winter bloom, and clover mix and lana vetch for spring bloom.

More information on resources for planting bee forage in almonds can be found on the PAm website at ProjectApism.org. Additionally, visit Almonds.com/Pollination for more ways that almond growers can benefit honey bees year-round.

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