Reduced Till and No-Till Planting of Vegetables in a Vetch/Triticale Cover Crop

Progress report for FNE19-924

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2019: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2022
Grant Recipient: Roxbury Farm
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Jean-Paul Courtens
Roxbury Agriculture Institute at Philia Farm
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

The goal of this project is to lower the barriers of adopting reduced till and no till planting of mid-season vegetables.

There is a great interest in reduced tillage amongst many organic farmers. Farmers are aware of the disadvantages of tillage but still have great apprehension towards adopting no-till planting of vegetables. The fear is since existing weed control equipment cannot deal with the plant mass, a crop can be lost once it is planted in a cover crop. Some “successful” examples use winter rye as a cover crop since this provides the best weed control, but this system reduces the yield of the vegetables to such extent that adopting this practice is counter-productive. Using leguminous cover crops for no till planting of vegetables provides a much better C:N ratio to ensure good yields but also breaks down before the crop can provide a good canopy.

My assumption is that if it works for cabbage it will work for sweet-corn, squash, and other brassicas. There is not a great deal of information available on the “how to incorporate this practice” and what tools need to be adopted to make it work. I want to generate some of that information.

Introduction:
  1. a) Organic vegetable crop production is hard on the Aside from disrupting aggregate stability, frequent tillage depletes organic matter and disrupts soil biology. Planting vegetables directly in cover crops can offset these negative consequences. Vegetable plants grown in this healthier soil could, in turn, be healthier as well.
  2. b) Organic vegetable crop production is hampered by high costs of weed Providing shade and cover can minimize weed control inputs leading to lower production cost.
  3. c) Naturally present fungi in the soil that serve as a filter and hold plant nutrients are disrupted by frequent tillage leading to the loss of plant nutrient which in turn will contribute to the contamination of ground and surface Reduced tillage promotes soil fungi, which promotes improved water quality.
  4. d) Organic vegetable farmers often use high inputs of compost (often animal based) to offset OM losses and maintain In order to optimize N for yield other nutrients like P and K are over applied. This can in the long-term lead to micro nutrient deficiency and water contamination. The use of leguminous cover crops provides N fertilization without the need of high compost inputs while lowering production costs

 

I was part of the DACUM work group on reduced tillage in 2015 which provided me with the opportunity to network with farmers leading this work in the Northeast. What was striking was the lack of success amongst these farmers to obtain optimum yield under no till conditions (with the exception of green beans). This led me to experiment with leguminous cover crops. After one

successful year of using a variety of leguminous cover crops, I was able to select hairy vetch as the ideal cover crop for both N fixation and soil cover. But as hairy vetch does not provide the ideal biomass for farmers in the northeast, I realized that some cereal should be mixed in to obtain the necessary 4000 lbs of biomass (rolled vetch is about 2500 lbs of biomass) and increase the C/N ratio from 12 to about 25. Triticale was selected as companion of vetch as its maturation (anthesis point) falls around the same time when vetch can be rolled and crimped. What we do not yet know is what the exact seeding rates should be, or how these mixes perform in different years.

Recent work with tillage radish for early-season, no-till spinach looks very promising (LNE-11-312). Project manager Lounsbury notes that this is not a good fit when planting brassicas, and of course this cover crop doesn’t provide any nitrogen. However, this work certainly provides one piece of the no-till puzzle. Most of the other work with no-till or reduced-till vegetables uses permanent raised beds. Jay and Polly Armor have been using permanent beds for up to 17 years (http://www.mofga.org/Publications/The-Maine-Organic-Farmer-Gardener/Summer-2014/No-Till), and other locations such as Tobacco Road Farm are using similar systems (https://thenaturalfarmer.org/article/no-till-vegetables-at-tobacco-road-farm/). For small-scale growers, permanent beds seem to be an ideal option. However, larger-scale growers often cannot utilize these same approaches.

My experience in the 2015 DACUM group hosted by Dr. Anusaya Rangarajan and Bryan Caldwell indicated that many organic growers have tried to plant directly into an organically killed cover crop, but there have been no notable success stories in the US. Jan-Hendrick Cropp, a German farmer who I collaborated with while working at the Farm Hub, has been more successful than we have at developing systems of planting into a cover-crop, but he relies heavily on “transfer mulching” to make up for the lack of biomass needed for good weed control. Transfer mulching involves moving chopped green hay or cover crop from one field and drop spreading it into another. This is prohibitive for almost all vegetable farmers, who do not have this sophisticated equipment and likely cannot afford to purchase it for this purpose. His work can be viewed here: https://articles.extension.org/pages/71822/rotational-no-till-and-mulching-systems-for-organic-vegetable-farms-webinar

Description of farm operation:

I am a graduate of the Groenhorst College, a biodynamic agriculture school in the Netherlands. I focused my studies on integrated farming operations. I have been a biodynamic/organic farmer since 1985 and founded Roxbury Organic Farm in 1990. I have experimented with cover crops since the beginning of my career. 2014 and 2017 I was employed at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub in Hurley NY. There, I was responsible for the creation of a farmer training program and oversaw the transition to organic and ecological practices of the 1200-acre former sweet corn farm. I have since retired from my work at the Hub as well as from my daily involvement with the Roxbury Farm CSA. Farming is still my only source of income, but In the coming years I will be able to dedicate more of my time to some of the lingering questions I have about how to maintain healthy soil under organic vegetable crop production while producing a limited number of crops.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Crystal Stewart-Courtens - Technical Advisor (Educator and Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

       Spring 2019

The soil was tested in May indicating that potassium and phosphorus levels in particular are low while calcium and Magnesium are sufficient to high. This prompted me to order fertilizer in the form of Composted Chicken Manure as well as Potassium Sulfate.  For details here is the soil test: SM027211

Summer 2019

  1. The plots were initially subsoiled with a Yeoman plow to break the plow pan, and the fertilizer was incorporated with a rotary tiller.   This was followed by repeated disking in order to kill the perennial grasses and weeds in the sod. The idea was to not disturb the soil too deep with horizontal tillage.  While the weed pressure might have been lower when a mold board plow was used, the decreased disruption of the substrate below 4 inches was one of the objectives of this trial.
    breaking sod with the rotary tiller
  2. Composted Chicken Manure in the amount of 1000 lbs per acre was applied as well as 100 lbs of Potassium Sulfate per acre in addition to 60 lbs of woodash.  This was incorporated with a Perfecta II Harrow that also created a smooth seedbed.
  3. Buckwheat was planted on June 27th at 80 lbs. per acre as a weed suppression. 
  4. The Buckwheat was worked under at August 5th with a disk.  In order to prepare the ground for triticale and Vetch, one additional pass was needed with the disk .
  5. incorporating buckwheat with a disk

 August-September-October 2019

  1. Additional fertilizer was applied on August 12 in the form of composted poultry manure in the amount of 1500 lbs per acre and disked in
  2. Before planting I needed to create a smooth and level seedbed which would help the following year with effective rolling and crimping.   A Perfecta II harrow was used three times as the ground originally found in sod proofed to be quite uneven.
    weed control with Perfecta II harrow
  3. In order to plant the correct amount of triticale and vetch in each plot the grain drill (an old John Deere 930) had to be calibrated.  The calibration chart inside the seed box had proven to be accurate for the buckwheat so my hope was that this would indeed work well for the triticale and vetch.  Unfortunately as I was planting 20 lbs increments of triticale and vetch the chart did not contain numbers that low.  Instead we needed to have a dry run before we would experiment in the field.  
  4. The plots were planted on September 13th and 14th. Each plot was covered 6 times opening and closing the drill as based on the application . The calibration was set on 20 lbs per acre and each plot was seeded in either 20, 40, 60 or 80 lbs of triticale.  The following day we emptied out the grain drill and calibrated this for vetch and each plot received either 20 or 40 lbs of vetch. 
    seeding the plots with the 8 different seed mixes using an old JD grain drill
  5. Flags were planted in each plot whereby each green flag represents 20 lbs of triticale and each orange flag 20 lbs of vetch.  The map was also created in digital format for future reference and in case the flags would disappear over the winter.  
  6. Due to a relatively wet fall the triticale and vetch came up quickly which also promoted plenty of winter annuals like yellow rocket, annual bluegrass and some mustard to germinate. 
27 plots whereby 3 are not planted and 24 plots with 8 different seed mixes with three replications of each mix

While initially the idea was to tineweed for the winter annuals, the hairy vetch would not lend itself for this kind of weed control.  If the weeds proof to be an issue in the spring we might need to walk the plots and resort to some hand weeding. 

Here is the research map:

SARE NT trial 2019-2020 New Map

Spring 2020

The triticale vetch mix fared well over the winter and the difference in ground coverage between the mixes was obvious.  The heaviest mix of 80 lbs of triticale with 40 lbs of vetch had better ground coverage but it was too early to tell if it had better weed pressure. 

heavy seeding of triticale and vetch
light seeding of triticale and vetch

The photo on the left (taken on May 5th) showed a typical heavy seed mix while the photo on the right shows a light seed mix.  There is obviously more shading in the heavy seed mix but very few weeds seem to have taken advantage of this.   The triticale and vetch start growing vigorously during the month of May and no other weed identification was done as the canopee closed quickly. 

 

 

 

 

 

Many hours in the month of May were spent to design and convert the existing 5000 WD Mechanical transplanter.   In order to mount a coulter in front of the planter, the frame had to be extended to provide the needed space between the 3-point hitch and drive wheel.   

Many conversations with the technical department at Mechanical transplanter were held and skepticism was offered as their traditional no-till transplanter is mounted on a 5 by 8 frame that holds a subsoiler and row cleaners and is followed by a wavy coulter.  The difference in design stems from the fact that this is not used in a traditional no-till plot as the field was worked in the fall and the ground is still soft.  The 2 ½ inch diamond toolbar looks weak compared to the hefty 5 by 8-frame but all it holds is the wavy coulter.  Special brackets and space bars were custom welded by Mechanical Transplanter to meet the specific needs of this project.  We had a discussion on the pros and cons of wavy over straight coulters and they decided to send a set of both not knowing which ones would work best. 

traditional wavy coulters
custom made brackets for the wavy coulters and custom made space bars between the two diamond toolbars
packing wheels without edge to work under no till conditions
traditional packing wheels with edge

In order to provide better closing under no-till conditions I also needed to swap out the packing wheels as the traditional packing wheels might ride on the hard ground.  The new packing wheels have no edge on the side (see pictures) 

June 2020

 Cabbage was seeded in Winstrip 72 cell trays during the week of May 26th.  90 trays were seeded using 7000 seeds of the variety Passat F1, that were generously donated by BeJo Seeds USA.  This is a dense cabbage yielding under ideal circumstances between 6 to 8 lbs. 

Anthesis June 15
area where triticale was not lodged and a high seeding rate of vetch
rolling and crimping of triticale and vetch
after rolling and crimping the control plots were rototilled to provide better weed control
close up of an average seed mix providing good coverage
from a distance it was hard to spot the difference between a plot that received 20 lbs of vetch and triticale and one that received 80 lbs of triticale and 40 lbs of vetch.

The triticale reached anthesis on June 15th.     This was earlier than I expected as it is not much later than winter rye.  My hope was that the triticale would flower a week later.   At certain test plots the vetch was overbearing and forced the triticale to lodge.  In the picture I review a heavy seed mix with no lodging.  There did not seem to be a direct correlation between lodging and amount of vetch in the mix.  The 500 feet long field showed consistent lodging in the middle of the field in almost all seed mixes.   There is a stronger correlating effect between any possible potassium deficiency and lodging instead.  The soil test showed rather low levels of K and while some fertilizer was applied the natural fertility in this field is best on either end.   To avoid lodging in the future I recommend that farmers apply optimum K fertilization.  Lodging can present numerous problems when trying to plant through the rolled cereal as will be clear later in this report.  In order to kill the vetch I had to roll and crimp three times which might have caused additional compaction.

July 2020

On July 6, 2020 we transplanted the cabbage through the cover crop.  At this point the triticale was sufficiently died down while the vetch even after rolling a second time was still alive and starting to set seed.  In some ways having a living cover of vetch should not be too much of an issue as it provides ongoing weed control and it is set back enough between the rolling and the cutting by the coulter of the transplanter that it hardly creates competition to the cabbage. 

 

The first day was spent much in changing over the initial set up as the planting proved to be a real challenge.

  1. First off, while we planted right after we had received an inch of rain a few days earlier, I cannot stress enough how important it is to have sufficient soil moisture for the planter to penetrate and the closers to work properly.
  2. Not being able to roll the triticale in one direction was another challenge to overcome and the following changes might not have been needed if the vetch had not caused the triticale to lodge.
  3. The lighter 2 ½ inch diamond toolbar frame did not provide enough weight for the front coulters to sufficiently cut through the mess of triticale that was laid down in all kinds of directions. We ended up using 9 cinderblocks adding 300 lbs of weight to the frame.
    look for the 9 cinderblocks mounted on top of the frame to provide extra weight on the coulters
  4. The wavy coulters were not doing their job as they did provide a nice slicing effect to be followed by the double disk openers of the planter. We exchanged the wavy for the larger straight coulters which allowed us to set them deeper and provide a better slicing effect even when cutting perpendicular through the straw.
    The larger straight coulters mounted before the double disk openers were set about 6 inches deep to provide proper slicing of the straw cover

Once we made all these changes, the planting went very smoothly the following day. 

irrigate before planting to provide optimum soil moisture

What also helped was to add another .25 inches of irrigation to provide optimum moisture of the soil. 

video of transplanting cabbage

second video transplanting cabbage

Thanks for the help of Crystal Stewart-Courtens and Chuck Bornt for helping us out those two days with the planting.   

September 21, 2020

The cabbages were exposed to unusual hot and dry weather through the summer and needed frequent irrigation.  The color of the cabbages in each plot looked correct and on September 21 tissue culture was taken and sent to Waters Agricultural Laboratory. Here are the results:

[P] (10-14-2020) PHILIA FARM – JOHNSTOWN

During September the rolled and crimped cover of vetch and triticale started to disappear, and weeds started to appear as an understory.  In the control plots there were the more common annual weeds like lambsquarter, orchard grass, mustards and wild radish. In the rolled and crimped plots, the weeds were quite different and consisted of (predominately) medium red clover, black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), reseeded hairy vetch, some dandelion (taraxacum), and goldenrod (solidago).

The tissue culture test showed that the competition in the rolled and crimped plots between medium red clover and cabbage resulted in low levels of nitrogen, potassium, boron, zinc and copper.   Compared to the control plots there was still a deficiency of potassium and copper, but the absence of red clover did not result in other deficiencies.  It became clear that while we had performed a soil test in the previous year and applied fertilizer, the potassium had not improved to optimum levels.    

Besides the competition of the weeds, some of the growth was hampered by planting in compacted conditions as well.  The compaction was due to the excessive driving needed to drill 8 different mixes and therefore a direct result of this being a trial and not a real world example.  By incrementally adding 20 lbs of each seed per pass, each plot had been passed by the tractor and grain drill eight times. When a soil penetrometer was applied, a resistance was measured between 200 and 250 psi at 7 to 9 inches in all plots.    While the deeper compaction was a problem for the crop to penetrate the soil, surface compaction had in some cases caused to bend the lower part of the stem.  Any the retarded growth of cabbage plants showed a 90 degree bend between the stem and the root.  This was most certainly caused during transplanting.  This proofed to be an even greater limiting growth factor than the competition from weeds.   

 

These photos were taken on September 28.  

November 18 cabbage was the harvest date. None of the cabbages were marketable as they were not completely sized up and/or firm. Nevertheless to obtain comparable results 25 continuous feet of representative cabbages were harvested and weighed in each plot .   While they were mostly full-size they lacked proper firmness which made them unmarketable.  It appears this was a widespread issue with other local growers and not due to the trial.  We think this was caused by the hot and dry conditions of the summer months retarding overall development.   If anything, while the control plot indicated greater availability of nutrients, the cabbages ere even less firm than in the rolled and crimped plots, indicating that the mulch must have provided a slight amount of cooling of the soil. 

 

 

 

Research results and discussion:

I have learned that many passes could have been saved with a more aggressive form of primary tillage like a moldboard plow.  While I have always used a moldboard plow when I turn a perennial pasture or hayfield back in crops, for the purpose of this trial I was hoping to avoid any form of horizontal tillage. I won’t do this again.  Not only was this an issue in creating a final level seedbed, a moldboard plow would have buried the pasture perennials on the surface of the sod.  In another section of the farm where I used the moldboard plow we saw a different weed profile.  While mustard was present there as well, very little grass or clover germinated.  

Secondly, while my assumption was that one does not have to use a no-till transplanter to penetrate a rolled and crimped cover crop, we learned that this is true if you do not drive over your test site 6 times to plant it and three times to roll and crimp it.  Having compacted the soil (both surface and a compacted layer found at 7 to 9 inches deep) this retarded the growth of the cabbage and actually improved the germination of medium red clover.  

Reducing the number of times to kill the hardy vetch will be important as well to reduce compaction.  This can be done by pulling a no-till drill without seed behind the roller crimper.   An alternative way of planting would be to avoid rolling and crimping altogether and by planting directly in the staging cover crop.  This would have allowed for the least compacted conditions allowing the transplanter to easily penetrate the soil.  IN that case many people use the roller and crimper after transplanting.  It feels risky but good results have been shown in soybeans wit this method.

The most important factor in securing good yields is by having good weed control.  This can be accomplished by introducing an effective bare fallow in the previous year and by seeding at the correct time assuring good coverage before the winter months.  In 2019 we seeded September 14 which proved to be too late for our northern region in the Adirondacks.  in 2020 we drilled on September 1 and got excellent ground coverage before the winter.  We planted the triticale vetch mix following garlic harvest.  While there was some medium red clover as well in the garlic this year, the heavy mulching suppressed most competition.  The combination of a bare fallow period followed by buckwheat will hopefully have sufficiently depleted the weed-seed-bank to the extent that the triticale vetch cover will be adequate for 2021 year crop of cabbage.  

I don’t think a July 6 date of planting cabbage is too late as we have done this in many other years with good results.  The control plots did not mature any earlier despite the lower pressure and the lack of competition for nutrients.  

I regret not being to hold a field day in September to show the results of planting cabbage through a cover crop due to the pandemic.  

I would like one more year to work out the issues that we uncovered during 2020 and hold a twilight meeting to share results with other growers. I think I am in a much better position this year to obtain the results I was hoping for in 2020.  

Research conclusions:

Following is the harvest data of each plot.  It is also organized by where each plot was placed in the field as discrepancy was more evident in regards to where it was grown than what treatment it received. 

SARE Cabbage Data

In summary we can conclude there was little evidence that yield improved or decreased due to seeding rate.  There did not seem to be a great difference in weed pressure between the different seeding rates and even within the plots there could be a sizable yield difference between plants.   The latter was more depending on individual growth retarding factors like competition with clover, lack of K and compaction.  Both the lowest and the highest yield were harvested in the rolled and crimped plots.  The highest yielding treatment was where 20 lb. of vetch with 80 lb. of triticale was seeded, while the lowest yield recorded was in the plots with 20 lb. of vetch with 60 lb. of triticale.  Yield reduction in three areas of the field are contributed by compaction.  This explains the little variation between the control plots as they did not suffer from surface compaction during planting as these sections were rototilled prior to planting.  What is very important to note is that when everything worked (fewer weeds, less compaction), the rolled and crimped plots outperformed the control plots by 50%!  Yield variation between individual plots was 300%.  The control plots had a 200% yield increase compared to the lowest yielding rolled and crimped plot.  

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

3 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary

4 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

I have reported on this work through the weed control webinar at the GLAXPO (Great Lakes Expo) and I was interviewed by IFOAM for their quarterly journal and  discussed some preliminary research results of this trial to illustrate regenerative agriculture.  AS the results of this trial as just in I did not have much more opportunity to report on this.,

Learning Outcomes

20 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

While I am not a researcher I learned that my research plots were larger than necessary to yield results.  While I was aware that weed control is important before planting the cover crop, I was not aware of any perennial weeds lurking underneath the rolled and crimped cover.  once the cover broke down medium red clover was able to quickly take over the plots and create competition with the cabbage plants.  

Secondly I learned how to adjust conventional plantings equipment to no-till equipment which allows me to convey other growers to try this method.  Our the the cost of no-till equipment many growers will not even try this on a smaller scale.  Being able to modify the existing equipment opens up the possibility of this system.

Overall I am quite excited about the outcome as the control plots performed “middle of the road” yields.  The highest yields were in the rolled and crimped plots.  Yields were mostly repressed due to compaction and lack of water and fertilizer. While the control plots did not suffer from surface compaction, all plots suffered from a compacted layer 7 to 9 inches deep.  This will not be as much an issue if you are not forced to make 6 passes.  Nevertheless, even though we did not have a marketable crop, and despite all the setbacks yields varied between 20,000 and 35,000 lbs.  At a wholesale price of $0.40 a lbs this was a potential return of $8,000 to $12,000 an acre. Once we have worked out the bugs this will only go up.   

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Nothing to report at this time

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.