Optimizing reduced tillage systems for vegetables grown in the upper Northeast

Final Report for LNE03-189

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2003: $150,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Dr. Anusuya Rangarajan
Cornell University
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Project Information


Reduced and modified tillage systems (e.g. no-, zone-, strip-, or ridge- till) represent strategies to reduce soil degradation and erosion and protect water quality. In straight no-till, soils warm slowly under heavy residue and vegetable harvests are delayed. Several growers and researchers in the more northern Northeast, however, have demonstrated practical strategies for successful adaptation of other reduced till systems. Our goal has been to increase the profitable use of reduced tillage systems for vegetables grown in the cooler climates of the upper Northeast. We focused on overcoming some of the challenges inherent in adopting reduced tillage systems, and demonstrated that these systems improve soil quality, maintain yields, and reduce costs.

We applied a multidisciplinary, problem-solving approach to evaluate strategies for innovation with reduced tillage systems for vegetables. Our team members included growers, researchers and extension educators. We used on-farm and on-station research, workshops, and field demonstrations to promote strategies for adapting reduced tillage systems. We tested and refined several reduced tillage systems for major vegetable crops including sweet corn, cabbage, dry bean, tomatoes and pumpkins. Our performance target was that of the 200 growers reached by this SARE project, 10 will change their rotations to accommodate reduced tillage systems, to improve soil quality within one year after the end of the project.

We succeeded in meeting our performance target. We now have up to 25 growers who are transitioning to reduced tillage due to the efforts of our project. The many outreach efforts of our team members helped vegetable growers with interest in reduced tillage throughout the region. We now have two informal reduced tillage growers networks in New York. These informal networks have facilitated exchange of reduced tillage information among growers and sharing of equipment for farm operations.


Our goal was to increase the use of reduced tillage systems in the cooler climates of the upper Northeast, knowing that these systems can help reduce soil erosion, compaction and improve soil quality on vegetable farms. Our project over the past three years has focused on various challenges inherent in adopting reduced tillage systems. Growers in the region have shown increasing concern about soil degradation arising from intensive tillage on their farms. Some farms have actually witnessed reduced profits due to problems associated with soil degradation. Due to the sensitive nature of vegetable crops, the soils are often intensively tilled to provide an optimum seedbed for the crops. Problems associated with the intensive tillage operation are loss of soil organic matter, breakdown of soil structure and the formation of disk and plow pans. All these ultimately affect the sustainability of the vegetable farm enterprises. Growers started asking questions and seeking ways to address the issue of tillage on their farm without compromising their yield and profit levels. No tillage, which is widely practiced in many warmer parts of the country, is a difficult option in the Northeast due to the cooler climate and field conditions. A tillage system that loosens the row zones, while leaving the inter-row zones intact is more adaptable to the region. The loosened row zones can warm up quicker in the spring and the subsurface compaction, a problem prominent in many fields, can also be addressed in these rows through deep ripping.

We therefore set out to demonstrate and fine-tune these reduced tillage methods for adoption in the region. Specific issues addressed by our project were land selection and planning for transition to reduced tillage, suitable rotations and cover crops, overcoming crop delays, planning for ridge or zone building, saving residue where tillage is needed, chemical and mechanical weed control approaches, appropriate equipment for small farms and overcoming subsurface compaction layer. Through the use of educational and outreach activities, on-farm demonstration and applied on-station trials, we were able to address various issues affecting the adoption of the reduced tillage practices in the region.

Performance Target:

Performance target: Of the 200 growers who attend workshops and field demonstrations on reduced tillage systems promoted through this project, 20 will engage in on-farm research and demonstration projects and 10 of these growers will change their cropping systems to accommodate reduced tillage for at least one of their crops, within one year after the end of the project.

We reached more than 200 growers through workshops and field days, by the second year of the project. Ten growers participated in on-farm trials with our team. Equipment limitation was a major barrier in setting up on-farm trials with many growers. However, we conducted many on-station trials which provided important information for fine-tuning reduced tillage systems and also served as demonstration sites for growers during field days. Twenty-five growers have started using reduced tillage systems by the end of the project, which exceed the performance target. We expect this number to increase with time, especially with the continued Northeast SARE funding of the team for another three years.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • George Ayres
  • Charles Bornt
  • Donn Branton
  • Steve Groff
  • Mark Hutton
  • John Idowu
  • Carol MacNeil
  • John Mishanec
  • Charles Mohler
  • Dale Moyer
  • Curt Petzoldt
  • Kevin Sanwald
  • Robert Schindelbeck
  • Gary Sweet
  • Harold Van Es
  • Andy Williamson


Materials and methods:
Field Days and Conference Presentations

Several field days were held in the region to enlighten farmers on the importance and application of reduced tillage practices. The field meetings were held at locations where on-going reduced tillage trials were showcased and reduced tillage equipment demonstrated. Growers were able to ask questions on specific issues related to adoption of reduced tillage practice on their farms. This method of engagement was very effective in situations where the meetings were well attended. During the first two years of the project, we had difficulties in getting the growers excited about reduced tillage practices. There was reluctance on the part of the growers to change their tillage practices. With the persistent efforts of the reduced tillage team members, who gave many presentations across the region, we witnessed an increase in the numbers of growers showing interest in reduced tillage during the last year of our project. We also feel that the increase in fuel prices helped drive interest in reduced tillage.

We reached a larger audience of growers through different annual and regional meetings and conferences (e.g. Empire Fruit and Vegetable Expo, Mid Atlantic Vegetable Conference, New England Vegetable and Berry Growers Conference). During these meetings, we were able to present our reduced tillage successes and challenges. At these events, we gathered names of individuals who wanted further information or were interested in support for field trials. Expert growers also traveled to other regions of NY to provide presentations on reduced tillage systems, equipment and economics.

Phone Conference Calls and Farmer Mentoring

We used phone conference calls to network interested new growers with our expert grower and university team members, to help answer various questions and concerns on reduced tillage. This method was very effective, but is limited to a small group of participants. Phone conference calls with greater than 15 participants became difficult to control and may have hindered effective discussion among the group. The expert growers and project team members also worked individually with many other growers interested in reduced tillage systems. Team members were also closely networked with the Soil Health Team, at Cornell, to provide technical support to those growers seeking to solve specific soil management problems.


We published some newsletters to disseminate information on reduced tillage. The newsletters included some articles written by some of our expert growers’ team members. However, it was difficult to maintain the newsletters with the volume of other research and outreach work conducted through the project. We reverted to email updates after the second year.

Electronic Media

We hosted a reduced tillage website (http://www.hort.cornell.edu/reducedtillage) since 2004 to disseminate information on reduced tillage. The website gave us an opportunity to reach a wider audience. Updates on reduced tillage research and progress of our project are presented on this website.

Case Studies

We are in the process of finishing case studies of farmers who have changed over to reduced tillage or are still in transition. We have interviewed 12 growers in the region who fit the profile for our case studies. We intend to publish the case studies in electronic and paper format and circulate these widely as an extension resource both for the growers and educators in the Northeast. Some of the case studies are already posted on the website.

Replicated Research Trials

Several demonstration trials were hosted on commercial farms to showcase the technicalities of the reduced tillage systems. These demonstration trials which were farmer-managed focused on overcoming various challenges inherent in the reduced tillage systems. Challenges related to equipment, weed control, compaction and crop performance were addressed by the demonstration trials. These trials served as important education tool for our field meetings and provided vital information on fine-tuning reduced tillage at a field scale. Growers were more inclined to try a reduced tillage method after observing an on-farm demonstration of such tillage practices.

We also conducted on-station research trials to help address several constraints associated with practicing reduced tillage in the Northeast. The controlled experimental conditions and replications in the on-station trials were vital for comparing different reduced tillage systems and also for the fine-tuning of the various reduced tillage strategies. A long-term reduced tillage experiment was set up at Homer C. Thomson vegetable research station in Freeville, NY, which examines three tillage systems, weed control and crop types in reduced tillage systems. The trials in Freeville and other research facilities have provided useful information to help the growers in the adoption of reduced tillage practices in the Northeast. The results of these trials are provided below.

Research results and discussion:

From the outcome of a survey conducted by the Cornell Soil Health Team in 2003, growers showed concern about how increasing tillage frequency and intensity were affecting their farming practices. In 2006, we conducted a survey during one of our major annual meetings to find out how the growers were responding to our reduced tillage efforts. Fifty eight percent (58%) of the respondents (N=45) indicated that they have reduced tillage in the past three years. Among those who have reduced tillage, the strategies being used are: zone/strip tillage (50%); no tillage (25%); reduced field passes (36%) permanent beds (8%). During this same survey, 67% of the growers pointed at equipment limitation as one of the major constraints they are facing in the adoption of the reduced tillage methods. We will continue to address this issue over the coming three years.

We reached a total of 420 growers in the first year, 323 growers in the second year, 323 growers in the third year and 265 growers in the extension year of the project. Many of the growers visited at least one of the project farm demonstration trials or on-station trials. Due to equipment limitations, less than the expected number of growers committed to field demonstration trials. We compensated for this by engaging in many controlled experiments focusing on specific issues related to the adoption of the reduced tillage in the Northeast.

Some of important lessons that came out of the trials include: tillage and herbicide response vary with soils, crops and locations; adopting no-till immediately after continuous plow-till can be a problem when transitioning to reduced-tillage; deep tillage in narrow zones (subsoiling) can help in alleviating compaction during the initial periods of transition to reduced tillage and deep zone tillage looks promising in terms of yield and produce quality of pumpkins, tomatoes, cabbage, dry beans and sweet corn. Other strategies and equipment for zone tillage need to be developed, to accommodate other farm system issues, such as incorporation of animal manures on diversified vegetable operations or smaller scaled operations. Two of our collaborating farmers have developed this type of equipment, and it will be featured in the case studies of their farms.

Brief description and results from our on-farm demonstration trials and results are outlined below:

1. Deep Zone Tilled Vegetable Demonstrations, Fish Farm (Farmington, NY) 2004-2006
In 2004, the treatments compared tomatoes and cabbage transplanted, using a conventional transplanter, into plowed/disked field and also into an adjacent zone tilled strip of Roundup killed rye. There were no significant differences in the yield of cabbage in zone-till treatment compared with plow-till treatment. Tomatoes grown in zone-till yielded significantly higher marketable tomatoes ompared with plow-till. Weed pressure was very minimal under both treatments.
In 2005, the trial compared deep ripping + zone tillage with conventional plow tillage for sweet corn (cultivar ‘Argent’). No significant differences in the yield and plant height were observed by tillage treatments. However, the deep ripped treatment gave quantitatively higher yields. The grower is very satisfied with the zone-tilled results and would like to convert the entire field to zone tillage the next season.
In 2006, the reduced tillage trials compared zone tillage with deep ripping with moldboard plowing for sweet corn production, and zone tillage with deep ripping with roto-tilling for cucumber and squash production. There was again no significant difference in the yield of sweet corn between the tillage treatments. This trial was planted on a side hill, and the grower observed less run off from the zone tilled area, another benefit to the system. Cucumber and squash plots had equal stands under both tillage treatments. There was some indication of higher cucumber yields with zone till/rip compared to rototilling, but all plots succumbed to disease early in the season.

2. Pumpkin zone tilled into two cover crops, Halsey Farm (Long Island, NY) 2004
A rye/vetch cover crop and a sorghum sudan cover crop were both killed with Strategy (Ethalfluralin). In 2003, the field had been sub-soiled & plowed before cover crop establishment. About 50 lb. less nitrogen was applied in rye/vetch plots. There was no significant difference in pumpkin yields under both cover crops. There was less weed pressure and pumpkins were cleaner on the rye/vetch cover crop. Less nitrogen application in rye/vetch (50 lbs) meant reduction in cost of inputs.

3. Zone tilled pumpkin production at Krupski’s Farm (Long Island, NY) 2004
Zone tillage (using Andy Williamson’s zone-till cart) was compared to a plow-till (plow & disk once) system. Both treatment received the same herbicide treatment, Credit Extra + Sandea. Yields were better in plow-till treatment than zone-till, but produce was cleaner in zone-till treatments, due to the mulch residue on soil surface. Weed control was good for the first 2 months of zone-till treatment after which the pressure became higher. Plow-till treatment was virtually weed free throughout the season.

4. Zone tilled Pumpkin production at Harbes’ Farm (Long Island, NY) 2004
Zone tillage (using Andy Williamson’s zone-till cart) was compared to a Sub-soiled & Plowed once + mechanical cultivation system. Both treatments received the same herbicide treatment, Credit Extra + Sandea. Both treatments had a rye cover crop preceeding pumpkins. However, before the establishment of the cover crop the previous year, both soils were sub-soiled and plowed. Yields under both tillage treatments were not different, and pumpkins were cleaner under the zone-till treatment. Weed pressure in zone-till treatments, however, was higher after 2 months into the season (as seen at the Krupski’s farm)

5. Deep Ripping and Nitrogen Placement in Sweet corn, Branton Farm (Le Roy, NY) 2004-2006
This experiment investigates the influence of deep ripping and deep nitrogen application on the growth and yield of sweet corn. The objectives were to evaluate the effect of deep ripping compared to zone tillage at planting, to evaluate the effect of nitrogen (N) applied at 10 inches depth at ripping compared with nitrogen applied with planter, and to evaluate how the above treatments affect growth, yield and processing characteristics of sweet corn. The experiment was laid out in four blocks with three treatments: Soil deep ripped with nitrogen put down with planter; Soil deep ripped with deep N application; Zone tillage (no ripping) with nitrogen put down with planter.

In 2004, marketable yields from the deep-ripped treatments were significantly higher than the yield from the non-ripped treatment, but there was no significant difference in the yield of deep ripped treatments with and without nitrogen injection. In 2005, no agronomic measurements including yield showed significant differences among the treatments. Trends suggested that deep ripping was affecting the yield more than deep N injection. In both years of trial, however, the quantitative yield was higher in deep ripped with deep N injection. The grower felt that this difference was significant financially. In 2006, we analyzed the three years of results together. Sweet corn yields and returns over three years were significantly higher with deep ripping. Sweet corn yield was also significantly higher with deep nitrogen placement. Subsurface compaction may have a significant yield limiting factor for the growth of sweet corn. Future on station research will further explore this finding of deep N placement and corn yields.

6. Zone Tillage of Sweet Corn and Pumpkins, Feura Farm in Feura Bush, NY (2005-2006)
In 2005, a four acre piece of land previously in alfalfa sod was divided. Half of the land was prepared using an Unverferth 4-row Zone Builder while the other half was prepared by moldboard plow. Half of each tillage treatment was planted to sweet corn and pumpkins. The sweet corn plant stands and height were slightly higher in zone till treatment than the conventional tillage. The pumpkins in zone tillage treatment looked good, but the set was not as high as in the conventional plot. Conventional plots had higher yields than the zone till plot but the pumpkin from zone till plot were cleaner.

In 2006, performance of different pumpkins varieties was compared under two different tillage methods, deep zone and conventional (moldboard plowing/disking). A four acre field that was previously cropped to sweet corn in 2005 was planted to rye after the corn was harvested. The rye was mowed and baled in the spring of 2006. It was then sprayed with a non-selective herbicide and divided in half. One-half of the field was moldboard plowed and fitted for planting, while the other half was strip tilled using a 4-row Unverferth Zone Builder Ripper Stripper. In each of the halves, 2 rows length of the field (900’) of the different pumpkin varieties were planted with a 4 row finger pick-up John Deere MaxiMerge planter. Varieties evaluated were Super Herc, Gold Medal, Gold Medallion, Aladdin, Phat Jack, Wolf and Racer.
In the fall of 2006, plots were harvested and the number of fruit, total marketable weight, fruit length, diameter and stem diameter were recorded. The results are still being analyzed and will be made available at a later date.

7. Comparison of Zone Tillage Equipment, Altobelli Farm in Kinderhook, NY (2005)
The grower used two different zone tillage machines (a 4-row Unverferth Zone Builder with the the two fluted coulters and rolling basket on the back of each shank and a 4-row Blue-Jet Sub-Tiller II with StripTill units) for pumpkin and sweet corn production comparisons. This grower preferred Unverferth Zone Builder and recently purchased a unit.

The summaries of our on station trials are presented below:

1. Reduced Tillage Trials at Valatie Research Farm (Valatie, NY, Columbia County) 2004, 2006
In 2004, the trial focused on evaluating herbicides and plant establishment alternatives in different pumpkin production systems. The tillage treatments were conventional bare ground, a plasticulture systems, zone-till + spring seeded oat cover crop and zone-till + clover sod. Herbicide treatments were sandea versus no Sandea. There were no significant differences in zone tillage yields due to cover crops. There was less weed pressure and pumpkins were cleaner under rye/vetch cover crop. Less N was needed in rye/vetch system (50 lbs).

In 2006, conventional tillage (moldboard plowed and disked) was compared to deep zone tillage for sweet corn, with and without row cover (DuPont 5131, formerly know as Typar 518 @ 1.25 ounces per square yard). Half of the field was plowed using a Ford 101 set of 3-bottom moldboard plows. The other half was not plowed, but was prepared using a four row Unverferth Ripper Stripper. Sweet corn variety, ‘Temptation’ was planted in both tillage treatments with a four row John Deere 7200 Maxi Merge Vacuum planter and Bicep Lite II Magnum was applied for weed control. Although the zone-tilled plots had higher number and weight of marketable ears than the conventional tilled plots, this difference was however not statistically significant. The number of marketable ear was about 20% higher while the weight of marketable ear was 16% higher in minimum tillage treatment compared to conventional tillage. The row cover led to significant higher number and weight of marketable ears in both tillage treatments. Row cover combined with minimum tillage gave the highest number and weight of marketable ears compared to other treatment combinations (no cover conventional tillage, no cover minimum tillage, and row cover conventional tillage). This suggests that row covers are an excellent strategy to help overcome some of the delay due to surface residue in reduced tillage systems.

2. Transition to RT for Cabbage production (H.C. Thompson Vegetable Research Farm, Freeville, NY ) 2003-2004
Strategies to transition from full-width tillage to zone tillage systems for cabbage were tested with the goals of overcoming soil temperature and compaction limitations, producing crop yield and quality equivalent to conventionally-tilled, and maintaining or enhancing soil quality. Designed to achieve different soil temperature and compaction levels, the treatments were factorial combinations of two widths of zone tillage (15 and 30 cm) and two depths of zone tillage (10 and 30 cm), plus a conventional rototilled treatment (full width and 20 cm depth) as a control. Zone tillage did not affect cabbage maturity or quality. Increasing tillage width from 15 cm to 30 cm increased soil temperature by 1 ºC in both years, but had a limited effect on cabbage growth and no effect on yield. Tillage width and soil temperature may have greater impact on an earlier planting. By contrast, increasing tillage depth from 10 cm to 30 cm reduced soil penetrometer resistance by up to 1 MPa, increased plant growth by 28% and yield by 22%. Growth and yield in 30 cm depth treatments were similar to conventional tillage; root growth was not limited by the undisturbed, between-row areas in zone tillage treatments. Tillage depth was more important to the success of this system than tillage width; vertical tillage to 30 cm depth left between 60 to 80% of the soil surface area undisturbed and can be an effective transition to conservation tillage for transplanted cabbage. (This research has been submitted to HortScience for publication.)

3. Long Term RT Systems Comparison (H.C. Thompson Vegetable Research Farm, Freeville, NY) 2004-2006
A long-term experiment was established in Freeville, NY to evaluated shallow zone-till, deep zone-till and plow-till coupled with three weed control regimes (conventional, 1/3 rate in-row + cultivation and cultivation only). The test crops for this period have been sweet corn and dry beans. In each year, we are able to plant both crops in the field, allowing multiple year comparisons.

In 2004 and 2005, neither dry beans nor sweet corn showed yield or growth differences due to tillage or weed control measures for all the agronomic indices measured. It is worth noting that prior to starting the trial, the field and soil had been well managed.

In 2005, penetration resistance (PR) of the soil under different tillage treatments were measured at planting and just before harvest. The equipment used was a RIMIK self recording penetrometer set to take measurements every 2.5cm as the probe is pushed into the soil. The mean penetration resistances for three depth layers (0-10cm, 10-20cm and 20-30cm) were computed from the measurements. Additionally, measurements were taken from the in-row and non trafficked between-row positions during both time periods. There was no significant difference in PR among the tillage treatments at 0-10cm, while there were significant differences in PR at 10-20cm and 20-30cm layers at planting. By harvest, PR measurement showed significant difference only at 20-30cm depth, among the treatments. In soil layers with significant differences, zone tillage treatment consistently gave a higher PR than the other treatments while there were no significant differences in PR between plowed and strip tilled treatments. There were also significant differences comparing the in-row and between-row PR measurements at both time periods for all treatments with between row being more compact than in-row.

In 2006, two varieties of sweet corn (“Temptation” and “Precious Gem”) and two varieties of beans (“Redkanner Light Red Kidney” and “California Early Light Red Kidney”) were evaluated in RT systems. While there was no significant tillage effect on the yield of sweet corn, the effects of weed control and sweet corn varieties were statistically significant. Conventional weed control method gave the highest yield (20.2 tons/ac) followed by 1/3 rate in-row + cultivation (17.6 tons/ac), while the cultivation only gave the lowest yield (15.2 tons/ac). The “Precious Gem” variety gave significant higher yield (25.7 tons/ac) than the “Temptation” variety (9.6 tons/ac). Similar to sweet corn, the seed yield of beans did not show any significant difference for tillage, but significant differences were detected for variety and weed control effects. The cultivation only treatment had lower seed yield (2785 Ibs/ac) than conventional (3289 Ibs/ac) and1/3 rate in-row + cultivation (3291 Ibs/ac) treatments. The “Redkanner Light Red Kidney” variety had higher seed yield (3297 Ibs/ac) than “California Early Light Red Kidney” variety (2911 Ibs/ac).

4. The Residue Saver, Mt Pleasant Crops Research Farm (Aurora, NY) 2004-2005
This experiment compared use of different tillage implements after the pass of the Residue Saver. This implement, designed by Dr. Chuck Mohler, cuts a cover crop and throws it over the top of a tillage implement, allowing the mulch to be maintained on the soil surface rather than incorporated after tillage. The experiments were conducted in a field with a well-developed rye cover crop that was cut at early head stage (2.1 ton/a). Treatments were conventional tillage (moldboard plow and rollerharrow), no-till (Roundup at 1 qt/a and flail mowed), residue Saver with a chisel implement, and residue saver with a field cultivator. The field was also not irrigated.

In 2004, yields were best in the conventional treatment (3,200/a, 22.7 ton/a), good in the Residue Saver treatments (3,000/a, 18.2 ton/a) and poor in the No-till treatment (2,200/a, 9.5 ton/a). The No-till treatment also had significantly more culls than the other treatments. The largest pumpkin in each plot was significantly heavier in the conventional treatment relative to other treatments, but other measures of fruit size did not differ among treatments. Although yield was significantly higher in the conventional than in the Residue Saver treatments, the pumpkins were much dirtier in the conventional treatment. No-till produced low yields and poor quality pumpkins and did not appear to be a viable reduced tillage option for pumpkin production at this location. Although the Residue Saver treatments did not perform quite as well as the Conventional treatment, yields and produce quality were sufficiently high to make this a promising approach to conservation tillage in pumpkins.

In 2005, at planting, the No-till treatment had significantly higher penetration resistance than the other treatments at 10-20cm soil layer, however there were no significant differences at 0-10cm and 20-30cm layers. PR measurements at harvest were significantly different among the treatments for 0-10cm and 10-20cm layers with No-till treatment being more compact than the other treatments. There was no significant difference in PR among the treatments at 20-30cm. There were no significant differences in PR measured from the in-row and between row positions at both time periods.

Yields of marketable fruit were significantly higher in the Residue Saver treatments than in the Conventional treatment. While no-till under-yielded all of the other treatments in 2004, no-till did not differ significantly from any of the other treatments in 2005. This was a dry growing season. It is likely the rye mulch on the soil surface conserved soil moisture, thereby enhancing the yield in the Residue Saver treatments relative to the bare conventional treatment.

5. Long Term RT Systems Comparison (Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center, Long Island, NY) 2004-2006
A long-term reduced tillage experiment was set up at Cornell’s Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center by Dr. Meg T. McGrath to investigate pumpkin production in rye straw mulch and clover living mulch. In 2004, the treatments were conventional tillage (Roto-till), zone tillage using Andy Williamson Zone-till Cart, and deep zone tillage using Unverferth zone builder. All the treatments had rye cover crop. The rye was rolled twice in the zone-tilled plots while it was flail chopped in the conventional tilled plots. Clover living mulch was planted between the rows of pumpkins. The location of clover and pumpkin strips are switched each year. Using clover living mulch between rows of a crop provides an opportunity to put some land into a cover crop where rotation out of crops is not feasible due to the value of the land, as is the case for many Long Island fields. Living mulch also can suppress weeds.

In 2004, this trial was complicated by exceptionally dry weather during the critical period of pumpkin growth. The stand establishment was poor particularly in conventionally-tilled plots. Although some irrigation water was applied, it was insufficient to overcome the drought stress experienced by the pumpkin plants. There was no significant difference in the yields of pumpkins among the different treatments. However the yield values seem to be quantitatively higher in reduced tillage plots.
In 2006, zone tillage with the pumpkins were seeded into rye straw mulch and a Dutch white clover living mulch planted between the pumpkin rows. The zone tillage equipment used was Unverferth zone builder with ripping shanks to break the subsurface pan. Conventional tillage treatment was with moldboard plow and twice disking. Early in the season a bacterial disease (bacterial leaf spot caused by Xanthomonas campestris p.v. cucurbitae) was found in a nearby experiment. This led to yield reduction in all the treatments across the entire field. Weeds were also aggressive, especially in the zone-till plots. The control measures applied were ineffective due to weather problems. There was no significant difference in yield between the conventional-till plots and the reduced-till plots. The number and weight of fruit per plant were statistically equivalent, although numerically lower for the reduced-till plots, and the average fruit weight was also the same for both treatments. There were significantly fewer rotten fruit per plant in the reduced tillage plots. Trials in this field will be continued with the next phase of the project.

Participation Summary


Educational approach:
  1. 1. Annual Organic Crops and Soils Field Day, Freeville, NY2003, 150 participants

    2. Fresh Ayre Farm Field Day, August 2003, 50 participants

    3. Branton Farm Field Day, August 2003, 40 participants

    4. County Fair Farm Field Day, September 2003, 40 participants

    5. Beech Grove Farm/ PASA Field Day, September 2003, 100 participants

    6. Reduced Tillage Round Table, New England Vegetable Growers, December 2003, 50 participants

    7. EXPO Vegetable Conference Empire State Fruit & Vegetable Expo, Rochester, February 10-11, 2004, 200 participants

    8. Innovative Growers Group Field Day, Branton Farms, LeRoy NY, August 3, 2004, 100 participants

    9. Cedar Meadow Farm Field Day, Holtwood, PA, August 3, 2004, 30 participants

    10. Fish Farm & Fresh Ayr Farm Twilight Reduced Tillage and Soil Quality Meetings, August 5, 2004, 30 participants

    11. Freeville Organic Research Farm Twilight Meeting, August 3, 2004, 45 participants

    12. SARE Regional Conference, Burlington, VT, October 19 –21, 2004, 600 participants

    13. Valatie Research Farm Field day, Valatie, NY, October 13, 2004, 25 participants

    14. Agriculture and Food systems In-service Education Training, Ithaca, NY,Ramada Inn

    15. Ithaca, NY, November 17-19, 2004, 50 participants

    16. Reduced Tillage Half Day Session, Empire State Fruit & Vegetable Expo, Syracuse

    17. February 17, 2005, 150 participants

    18. Valatie Research Farm Field Day, Columbia County, NY, July 6, 2005, 65 participants

    19. Cedar Meadow Farm Field day Holtwood, PA, July 26, 2005, 50 participants

    20. Soil Health and Reduced Tillage Field Tour, Four Farms and the NYS Agricultural Experiment Station, Geneva, August 10, 2005, 30 participants

    21. Stantons Feura Farm Reduced Tillage Twilight Meeting, Feura Bush NY, August 9, 2005, 28 participants

    22. Reduced Tillage Session, Empire State Fruit & Vegetable Expo, Syracuse, NY, February13-16, 2006,150 participants

    23. Freeville Organic Research Farm Field Day, Freeville, NY, August 1, 2006, 50 participants

    24. Branton Farm Reduced Tillage Field Day, Le Roy, NY, August 10, 2006, 30 participants

    25. Fish Farm Reduced Tillage and Soil Health Field Day, Shortsville, NY, August 17, 2006, 35 participants


We hosted a reduced tillage website in the Department of Horticulture at Cornell University in 2004. This website has provided valuable information on our project to a wider audience in the region. We have also posted some of the growers’ cases on the reduced tillage website.

Case Studies

We are presently compiling twelve case studies of growers who have adopted reduced tillage or are in transition. The case study documents growers’ experiences on equipment, tillage, weed control, crop types and other cultural operations crucial to the success of reduced tillage systems. We have posted some of the cases on the reduced tillage website. The case study will be an excellent educational tool for growers and extension workers in the region. These will be posted to the website as they are finalized.

No milestones

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

We witnessed some reluctance on the part of the growers, to try out reduced tillage methods during the first and second year of the project. However, during the third year, there was more willingness among the growers in the region to experiment with reduced tillage methods. Some of this interest may have been driven by rising fuel prices. In addition, the work of the Cornell Soil Health Team has enhanced and supported the outreach efforts to promote reduced tillage systems for vegetables. The increased awareness and interest in reduced tillage among growers has led to the development of informal reduced tillage groups in Eastern and Western NY. These groups are facilitated by the local extension educators. One of these groups received a zone tillage equipment as donation to share within their group. Both groups are working on fabricating two-row zone tillage units for smaller farms.

Zone/strip tillage methods, which limits tillage to a narrow width of soil is proving to be the prominent reduced tillage method experiencing wide adoption in the region. From our various reduced tillage trials, we confirmed that the zone and in particular deep-zone tillage techniques (vertical tillage under the 6 inch zone tilled strip) can be successfully utilized, to provide the primary tillage operation for large seeded and transplanted vegetable crops in the Northeast. These tillage methods can improve soil quality, reduced tillage costs, improve labor efficiency and provide better timeliness of field operations.

Future research, funded by Northeast SARE, will focus on adapting zone tillage for small seeded, root and organic crops. For small seeded crops, a more finely prepared seed bed may be required. This suggests that different types of finishing equipment may be needed with zone tillage. We will also test the performance of root crops, which require good soil tilth for excellent quality. Beets, carrots and onions will be the focus of 2007 trials. Organic systems face special challenges with weed management. We are investigating the impact of different cover crop and weed management intensities in conjunction with deep zone tillage. We have started these trials with cabbage, and next year will add winter squash.

Economic Analysis

Preliminary analysis conducted with two of our expert growers indicated that converting to reduced tillage did not result in significant cost savings. This was primarily due to the new equipment costs needed for the systems. However, both growers reported that significant labor efficiency and flexibility and soil quality were important benefits of these systems that were not accounted for in conventional enterprise budget analysis. Additional analysis will be completed in the future.

Farmer Adoption

Our project successfully achieved the performance target that we set. We now have up to 25 growers who are transitioning to reduced tillage due to the efforts of our project. The many outreach efforts of our team members helped vegetable growers with interest in reduced tillage throughout the region. We now have two informal reduced tillage growers’ network in New York State. The informal networks have facilitated exchange of reduced tillage information among growers and sharing of equipment for farm operations.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

While our reduced tillage methods have been very successful for large seeded or transplanted crops, they are yet to be fine-tuned for small seeded vegetables, root crops and organic systems. These crops can be important crops in a vegetable rotation. The challenges for adapting our current reduced tillage techniques for these crops will include seedbed preparation and residue management. Research into optimizing zone and strip tillage systems for the small seeded vegetable and root crops are needed to promote a wider adoption of reduced tillage among vegetable growers.

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.