No-till potatoes into cover crop, using mod. conv. planter

Final report for FW17-055

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2017: $20,000.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2020
Grant Recipient: Jeff Parkinson
Region: Western
State: Idaho
Principal Investigator:
Jeff Parkinson
Jeff Parkinson
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Project Information

Over the next two growing seasons, my partners and I will research the performance of Russet Burbank potatoes that have been no-tilled into a cover crop using a minimally modified conventional planter in SE Idaho. This will be a “side-by-side” comparison of the no-tilled potatoes with conventionally tilled and planted potatoes, in the same field (planted to cover crop), under the same center pivot irrigation. The goal of this research is to determine whether this practice is a viable option for production agriculture in SE Idaho.
While potatoes can be a very lucrative crop, prices are highly unpredictable year to year. The only way I can increase the potential for profit is to reduce my inputs. I have been participating in the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District’s (SWCD) Healthy Soil Initiative, no-tilling small grains and planting cover crops after small grain harvest. No-tilling the small grains has significantly reduced my inputs. If I could grow a successful crop of potatoes using no-till, it could eliminate up to five tillage operations.
I searched the internet for research on no-till potatoes, but didn’t find much information related to production agriculture. However, I did find a video clip of Ron Morse’s no-till of potatoes in cover crops at Virginia Tech in Weed ''Em and Reap Part 2: Reduced tillage strategies for vegetable cropping systems [DVD]. A. Stone. 2006, which sounded promising. So, I “no-tilled” a few rows of potatoes, in 2014, with my conventional potato planter; just to see if it could work. I found that in some areas the planter didn’t place the potato seed deep enough. I
had to go back through with the harrow to cover them deeper. After harvest, the no-tilled potatoes seemed to have performed on par with my conventionally tilled potatoes, though I have no quantitative data to support this conclusion.
I have determined that if I were to mount a “tool-bar” with shanks to break the ground just in front of the planter’s furrow openers it would provide enough assistance to the planter, that seed would be placed at the right depth, and eliminate the need for a separate operation to ensure the seed is covered to the right depth.
I have enlisted the following partners:
The Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District, NRCS Rexburg District Office, the
Madison County Cooperative Extension Agent. These partners have helped me design the research project. They will help collect and analyze the data that will help me determine if it’s feasible to grow Burbank potatoes using this no-till system.
This project will take place on my farm on the Egin Bench, west of St. Anthony, Idaho during the 2017 and 2018 growing seasons. Each year, we will identify about 2.2 acres of a field located under the same irrigation pivot, with a fall planted cover crop, similar soils and the same cropping history. The no-till potatoes will be compared to the conventionally tilled potatoes. We will be tracking emergence, plant health, diseases & pests, production/acre, after-harvest quality and profit/acre for both the conventional and no-till potatoes. I have contracted with a local potato warehouse, Moody Creek Produce, that will run quality tests on the 2.2 acres of no-till potatoes, and 2.2 acres of the conventionally tilled potatoes each year.
Some of the challenges we expect from the no-till are:
• Delayed emergence
• Cover crop residue interfering with harvest
• Reduced efficacy of pre-emergent herbicide (needs contact with the soil)/weeds
• Cooler soil temperatures
• Possible reduced yields and/or quality.
Some of the possible benefits we expect are:
• Increased organic matter in the soil which would capture an hold more nutrients from being flushed from the soil by irrigation
• Reducing eliminating up to five tillage operations
• Possible reduction in the amount of water needed to grow the crop, due to increased organic matter, and ground cover prior to row closure.
My partners and I will host and on-farm tour in late July to discuss methods, findings, and lessons learned. My neighbors, local area farmers, legislators, Cooperative Extension, USDA experiment station staff, Idaho State Department of Ag, NRCS staff, Idaho Soil and Water Conservation Commission, ID SWCD’s with potato growers, Potato Growers Association and the press will be invited to attend.
We will develop and update a factsheet on our findings, and chronicle all field aspects and findings with a video.
Factsheets will be available at the Farm Service Agency (FSA), NRCS office, Farm Credit Services, County Cooperative Extension, and SWCD offices. We will encourage the staffs of these agencies and businesses to provide their potato growers with a copy. It will also be posted on the Idaho NRCS, and University of Idaho Cooperative Extension websites.
DVDs of the video will be made to be used a local farmer meetings. The video will be posted to You Tube with links to the video posted on the NRCS and the Cooperative Extension websites. The video will be an on-going production. We will be posting segments as the project unfolds.
We will present our findings at the Idaho Potato Conference in Pocatello, Idaho, January 2019.
Project Objectives:
1. Modify an existing conventional potato planter to effectively no-till potato seed into a fall seeded cover crop. Build and mount a tool bar on the planter. Subsoil shanks will break the soil ahead of the furrow openers enabling the planter to place the seed potatoes at the right depth (4-5”).
• Time line:
o design of modification completed in February 2016
o modification completed and tested by April 30
2. Compare no-till potatoes with conventional tilled potatoes for two growing seasons. Track the following throughout the growing year and harvest for both the conventional field and the no-till field)
• Inputs – tillage-cultivation/equipment/fuel usage, fertilizer, pesticides/herbicides, and labor
• Soil temperatures
• Emergence after planting
• Plant health
• Potato Quality will be tested after harvest in 2017 and 2018. A potato warehouse has been contracted to run two separate tests, one each for the conventionally grown, and no-till
• Production/Acre – lbs/acre at harvest.
• Profit/Acre
3. Education and Outreach, starting in spring of 2017 and running through November 2018.
• Develop a one-page fact sheet for area farmers about the project and its findings that will be posted on the NRCS, Extension (County & State) and SWCC websites. It will available at the Farm Service Agency, Cooperative Extension, and NRCS offices – complete by August 2017. Updates after harvest in 2017 & 2018.
• Develop a video chronicling the project from beginning to end. Post segments as they are filmed, and the final (December 2018) on You-Tube with links posted on the NRCS and Cooperative Extension websites. Also burn DVDs for use at local farm meetings.
• Conduct a field tour late July 2017 & 2018. Invite local farmers, legislators, press, potato warehouses, send invitations to other potato farmers through the other SWCD’s in SE Idaho, Idaho Department of Ag, the Potato Growers Association and others. Invitations out no later than three weeks prior to the event. Reminder phone calls to locals no later than one week prior.
• Present the findings at the 2019 Idaho Potato Growers Convention


Materials and methods:

Materials used in the project were very limited. Some extra steel, atv sprayer tank and pump, tillage shanks and some labor were used to modify my existing planter to accomplish the project.

Planter Modifications:

A Kverneland 4 row planter was used in this project. A tool bar was mounted on the front to allow for shanks to be placed in front of the furrow openers. These shanks also had fertilizer tubes mounted to them to apply mark out fertilizer during planting. The shanks were able to be raised up out of the way during planting of the conventional plot and then lowered to plant the no till plot.

Research results and discussion:

My findings in this project show that it is quite possible to grow no-till potatoes successfully. At least as "no-till" as potatoes can possibly be. Harvesting potatoes as a fairly unavoidable amount of soil disturbance. As shown in my tables in this report you can see that quality and yields were quite comparable. As any grower knows the results could vary dramatically from year to year, given the same methods are applied, simply due to environmental conditions. 

Participation Summary
1 Producers participating in research

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

3 Consultations
1 On-farm demonstrations
1 Tours
2 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

40 Farmers participated
15 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

Since completing this project I have given presentations at three seminars involving growers interested in cover crops and no-till/minimum till practices. In non formal settings I have had discussions with a dozen or so individual growers and Ag industry related professionals. 

1 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:

In summary of my first of this two year project I would say the results of no till potatoes look very promising. As far as quality is concerned, the no till potatoes out performed the conventional potatoes in almost every way. Other benefits I saw were reduced wind erosion and reduced labor and tillage expenses. I believe with some practice with cover crop varieties, wind erosion could nearly be eliminated during the growing season. Leaving only small exposure to wind erosion following harvest. Yield differences were very comparable as well. It will be interesting to see next years results and compare. There weren't any significant drawbacks to the no till potatoes other than I lack the GPS to plant so I reverted to my old marker arm system. If I continue this practice in the future (Very likely) I will need to purchase RTK capable GPS. The soil in the no till potatoes seemed to be a little dryer all season. I would say because the soil was firmer, preventing water penetration compared to the conventional plot where a ripper went between all the rows. I feel this could be remedied with the use of different cover crops in order to maintain higher crop residues till row closure. Overall I am very satisfied with the results. My goals in this project were to prove to my neighbors who till heavily that it is unnecessary, to reduce wind erosion and reduce input costs while maintaining quality crop results. I feel after this years experiment that this is very possible.


Going into this no-till project I expected to see certain things. 

No-till potatoes: Lower yields, less quality, less irrigation, compacted soil, no erosion, issues with crop residue during harvest and more weeds.

Conventional potatoes: Better yields, better quality, more irrigation and erosion problems.

What i found was that the no-till potatoes did yield less but produced better quality potatoes with the same levels of fertilizer and irrigation minus the extra tillage expenses. The first year project resulted in some heavy wind erosion on the conventional plot. There were no issues with erosion in year two for lack of wind prior to row closure. As expected crop residue was an issue in year two without mulching in the wheat stubble and having a rainy harvest. After completion of this project it is my opinion that there is a happy medium between no-till and conventional tillage potato production that each grower can find to reduce erosion and tillage costs and still produce quality potatoes. In my operation in the future I plan to continue minimum tillage practices in my potato program. I will likely mulch my stubble in the Fall and plant cover crops. Then in the Spring plant potatoes directly into my cover crop residue. I plan to use my ripper/cultivator as well to loosen the soil for water and nutrient penetration. This will also improve digging conditions by allowing the digger point to penetrate the ground properly.  My goal in this project was to prove that no-till potatoes could be grown with similar yield and quality results as conventional methods and I believe I have shown that to be the case. I thank WSARE for their willingness to fund this project and help show growers that there is room for improvement in our farming operations in order to protect our resources for the future.



10 Producers reported gaining knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness as a result of the project
Key changes:
  • No farmers to my knowledge have tried any projects on their own. One grower I have spoken with intends to begin implementing no till practices in 2019.

    Update November 2019: I had a grower from southern Idaho near Grace Idaho contact me for further information and advice on getting started growing no till potatoes. No updates as to whether he has or has not put it into practice.

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.