Optimizing reduced tillage for root, leafy, and organic vegetables grown in the Northeast

Final Report for LNE06-245

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2006: $164,628.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Dr. Anusuya Rangarajan
Cornell University
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Project Information


Reduced tillage (RT) systems provide an opportunity for vegetable growers to save fuel and labor while enhancing soil quality, protecting water quality and maintaining profitability. Our goal has been to increase the profitable use of RT systems for vegetables grown in the cooler climates of the upper Northeast. This NESARE project has focused on developing RT strategies for organic production systems and for small seeded crops. We tested several strategies to adapt RT to both organic systems (transplanted cabbage and peppers) and with root crops (carrots, beets). Through our team’s outreach efforts, we demonstrated benefits and challenges of RT to 700 vegetable growers in the Northeast. We documented 11 growers who have committed to permanent changes to reduce tillage on their farms, but are aware of numerous others who have also now using this conservation practice. Of the 6000 acres of vegetables that these growers manage, 3200 (65%) are now managed using reduced tillage approaches, and all growers plan to expand their RT acreage. Reported labor savings averaged 37% and fuel savings 40% for the reduced tillage system compared to primary tillage for field preparation. Other positive attributes of the RT system reported by growers include soil health and drainage improvements, reduced equipment wear and tear, similar or improved crop yields, more labor flexibility and timely planting, and reduced soil erosion that is visible to their communities as clean surface water.


Growers in the Northeast have expressed increasing concern about soil degradation arising from intensive tillage on their farms. Some farmers have actually witnessed reduced profits due to problems associated with soil degradation. Due to the sensitive nature of vegetable crops during early growth, 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 compacted disk and plow pans. All these symptoms of soil degradation ultimately affect the sustainability of a vegetable farm enterprise. Growers started seeking strategies to improve soil quality 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 reduced tillage system that loosens the soil in the planted 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 crumbled soil provides a better environment for establishing vegetable crops. Subsurface compaction, a problem prominent in many vegetable soils, can also be addressed in these rows through deep zone building, a reduced tillage strategy.

It is our long term goal to increase the adoption of reduced tillage (RT) systems in vegetable crops grown in the upper Northeast, to help reduce soil erosion, compaction and improve soil quality on these farms while maintaining crop yield and quality. In 2003, with our first SARE-funded RT project (LNE03-189), our team researched and demonstrated successful production of large-seeded and transplanted vegetable crops in our region. We also developed working groups of farmers in Eastern and Western NY that interact to solve problems in RT systems. One challenge expressed by many growers is that small-seeded or root crops may be included in their rotations, yet very little information is available on response of these crops in the RT environment. Organic producers also want strategies to reduce tillage in their systems while still managing weeds. Therefore, for this SARE-funded project, we focused our research and extension efforts in these two areas over the last four years. In addition, we continued to support research and education on the general soil and crop management issues inherent in applying reduced tillage for vegetables systems in the Northeast. We have also worked on designing or fabricating new equipment and the adjustment of the already existing equipment to address the concerns of growers on reduced tillage for vegetables. We have also engaged many vegetable growers in the region in discussions relating to specific management problems that they are facing in adopting reduced tillage.

Performance Target:

Performance Target:
Out of the 500 growers that get exposed to the reduced tillage methods for vegetable cultivation of small-seeded crops, transplants and organic systems, 30 will implement reduced tillage practices on a permanent basis within one year after the end of the project.

The specific objectives of the project were to:
1)Promote strategies for adapting reduced tillage (RT) systems for small seeded and root vegetables and organic production systems
2)Engage the expertise of our team in the design of appropriate RT equipment for small-seeded or root vegetables and organic farming systems in the Northeast
3)Facilitate on-farm research network and farmer-to-farmer learning groups in the region
4)Explore specific questions through applied research on adapting RT for small seeded and root vegetables and organic systems.
5)Have new growers transition part of their farm or rotation to RT systems by the end of the project

We were able to document 11 growers who have made permanent changes to their practices to implement RT on their farms. All of these growers implemented RT for large seeded crops on their farms. Several other growers have starting using RT practice on their farm, but their transition to RT could not be specifically associated with this project. Our team has, however, interacted with and provided support to most of these vegetable growers over the last 6 years. The primary challenge for adoption by new growers was the purchase of new RT equipment. Our research with RT for small seeded and organic crops has demonstrated major production challenges with crop quality and weed management. This has resulted in our project team not promoting these systems as originally forecasted when developing our performance target. We have identified two growers who are using deep zone tillage with carrots, and one organic grower in the Northeast who has successfully modified and implemented RT (in addition to others we have previously known).


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
  • Charles Mohler
  • Eric and Anne Nordell
  • Harold VanEs


Materials and methods:

The majority of our efforts on this project were focused on research trials and on-farm demonstrations to address challenges to successful adoption of RT. Many of our experiments addressed RT in organic systems, with small seeded crops, transplanted crops and with new equipment configurations. In addition, we continued on-farm research focused on testing new strategies for large seeded and transplanted crops. Our educational efforts included field days, conference presentations, grower conference calls and mentoring, and publication of fact sheets. These are summarized under the outreach section.

Several research and demonstration trials were hosted on commercial farms to showcase the technicalities of the reduced tillage systems. These demonstration trials, which were collaborations between farmers and cooperative extension educators, focused on overcoming various challenges inherent in the reduced tillage systems and testing the suitability of RT for small seeded root crops. Topics of focus included enhancing earliness, fertility management, equipment design, and crop performance. These trials served as important education settings for our field meetings and provided vital information on fine-tuning reduced tillage at a field scale. We also built a small scale RT unit to assist growers with setting up on-farm tests of RT (Figure 1). This unit was brought to grower field days to demonstrate principles of RT. Growers were more inclined to try a reduced tillage method after observing an on-farm demonstration of such tillage practices. Trial details and summarized below with results.

On-station research trials were vital for comparing RT under conventional and organic management, and with small seeded root crops (carrots and beets). Five research experiments were used to evaluate RT under different combinations of treatments. All of these sites were at the Homer C. Thomson Vegetable Research Farm in Freeville, NY. Other research for the project was conducted at the Long Island Horticultural Research Center in River Head NY and at the Valatie Research Farm, in Valatie NY. Experiments at these two locations were led by Cornell Cooperative Extension Educators and are summarized in the results with the on-farm demonstrations.

Data collected from all of these experiments included crop stand and biomass over the season, weed biomass, crop yield and quality and soil N availability. These data are currently being summarized for publication in peer-reviewed journals. Data has also been shared at numerous growers meetings around the Northeast.

Long Term Conventional RT Experiment

This 2 acre experiment was set up in 2004 under our previous NESARE grant, to examine three tillage systems (conventional, shallow zone tillage and deep zone tillage), three weed control strategies (conventional, banded herbicides, no in-season herbicides) and two direct seeded crops (sweet corn, dry beans, or winter squash). An Unverferth Zone Builder (Figure 2) was used to establish all deep zone tilled areas.

Root Crops grown with RT

In 2006 and 2007, we conducted an experiment to examine adaptability of RT for beet and carrot production. Three tillage systems (conventional, shallow zone, and deep zone) were compared in a sandy loam soil. In 2008, we modified the finishing units on a deep zone till unit to attempt to improve the seedbed for carrots. In 2009, we tested a modification of the deep tillage shank for ability to improve root quality of carrot, but carrot stands in this year were too variable due to the intense pounding rains early in the season. The strategy, however, has been shared with growers.

Long Term Organic Field 1

In 2005, the first organic RT experiment was initiated at the Cornell Organic Research Farm, in Freeville NY. All practices and materials applied to the field were certified organic and approved by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of NY. Two tillage treatments (conventional and deep zone tillage) were compared with three different cover crop strategies (oat pea, hairy vetch /rye, or oat pea followed by spread straw mulch) and managed at two levels of weed control intensity (high use of mechanical cultivation versus fewer targeted mechanical and hand weedings). The initial crop was cabbage, rotated with peppers, for four years. The experiment was ended in 2009, due to excessive buildup of annual and perennial weeds.

Long Term Organic Field 2

In 2006, a second organic RT experiment was initiated at the Cornell Organic Research Farm, in Freeville NY. Experimental design and treatments were as described for Field 1 (above). The initial crop was cabbage, and the field has been rotated with peppers until 2010. This second field allowed us to examine these systems for both crops each year. This also facilitated hosting field days and discussing RT with growers.

Organic Multiyear Mulching Strategies

In 2007, an experiment was set up at the Cornell Organic Research Farm to explore pepper performance in three bed systems: a standard annually prepared plastic mulched bed, a hybrid mulch in the plastic and bed were retained in place for two years, and a no mulch control. In the case of the standard plastic and no mulch control, 5 t/a compost was applied at the start of each growing season. In the case of the hybrid mulch treatment, 15 t/a compost was applied prior to bed shaping and mulch laying. The experiment was originally designed to be in place for three years. Between the beds, either clover was seeded or the ares were left bare.

Alternative cover crop residue management under organic RT

In 2009, we initiated an experiment with attempted to improve organic crop performance through cover crop choice and residue management to enhance crop fertility and in-row weed control. Three cover crop management strategies were tested in a deep zone tillage system- oat peas winter-killed (control treatment), hairy vetch /rye mowed and left in place, and hairy vetch / rye mowed and then moved into the row after transplanting peppers. By moving the hairy vetch rye residue into the row, we sought to improve in row weed suppression and allow for more efficient between row weed control, since residue tends to hamper these activities. To maximize the amount of residue available, we mounted row cleaners on the front of the zone builder, designed to move the cover crop residue out of the row and minimize the amount incorporated into the planting zone. As part of this research, we built an implement designed to move mulch from between rows to into the planted row (Figure 3). This graduate student project was funded via this project and other grants, and also received funding in 2010 through the NESARE Graduate Student Grants.

Research results and discussion:

The overall strategy used in our project was to provide intensive winter workshops followed by field days and on-farm demonstrations, to help growers decide if RT systems fit within their farm goals. We exceeded our goal to reach 500 growers through winter conferences and field days. A total of 700 growers were reached through these events, with about 260 attending winter meetings and 440 attending summer field days. Attendees included all scales, organic and conventional, processing and fresh market growers.

Winter meetings were especially useful for in-depth presentations by growers and researchers on application of reduced tillage systems for growers. For example, evaluations returned for the Soil Health/Reduced Tillage session at the 2008 Empire Fruit and Vegetable Expo indicated that 90% of attendees improved their knowledge in one or more of the subjects presented and 60% planned to apply something new they learned in the session. All reported following at least one of the good soil management practices described. Comments on the evaluations included: “One of the most interesting topics I have been exposed to,” “Great speakers - really held the audience interest,” “Nice combination of information from researchers and growers.” “Thank you for your efforts.” “Great education sessions.” Numerous presentations were prepared by team members and grower collaborators.

Field days provided a combination of short presentations by researchers and growers, followed by equipment demonstrations and more detailed discussion on application of reduced tillage practices to vegetable rotations. Grower hosts for field days were Donn Branton, Tom Jeffres, John Gill, Lynn Fish, Paul Freatman and George Ayres. Field days were also hosted annual at the Cornell Organic Research Farm in Freeville NY, the Cornell Cooperative Extension Farm in Valatie NY, and at the Long Island Horticulture Research Center, in Riverhead NY. These sites hosted the research plots and provided excellent field laboratories for growers to examine research, equipment setup and crop performance.

Numerous growers hosted on-farm demonstrations or trials in collaboration with our team (see below descriptions). Most of these growers are still relatively new to RT, and focused most of these trials on large seeded, direct seeded crops such as sweet corn, squashes and beans. Experiments included testing RT with crops on their farm, enhancing earliness, and examining fertility or cover crop management practices. These trials were also sites for field days supported by the project.

While we had hoped to have on-farm trials with organic farmers, we did not pursue these until the very end of the project. Barriers included not being able to adequately kill cover crops prior to doing zone building and not having small scaled equipment. Several organic growers approached our team about doing an RT trial in fields with an established sod or alfalfa. We knew, however, that these would not be successful trials given the in-season competition of the cover and the crop. Our team did not continue to pursue on-farm trials with organic farmers until additional research results were available. We also have built two deep zone units that are suitable for smaller farms and available for use by these growers. Currently, in 2010, we now have three organic farmers who are doing or preparing for RT trials on their farm.

Based upon our research results, it is not surprising that we have observed this delay in organic farmer adoption. These growers do not have as many tools available to deal with weed challenges that could be aggravated in an RT system. However, presentations and outreach with these growers have focused on several other strategies to reduce tillage frequency or intensity other than deep zone tillage. These include rotating tillage through time, using permanent beds and increasing rate of mulching. Scale, size and crop diversity require consideration of non-equipment based strategies to reduce tillage.

Our research supported doing RT with beets, but not carrots. This was a serious setback to our team. One grower did a field trial with carrots but had poor stands and poor yields from the RT plots. An issue with processors is harvesting root crops from RT fields. We were not able to progress our research from the experiment station to growers fields, despite showing beet quality and yields to be similar under RT, just delayed.

Despite these setbacks, our research efforts, on-farm demonstrations and outreach efforts have supported several new RT growers to purchase equipment and implement this practice on their farms. We have developed close working relationships with experienced organic growers who are borrowing our equipment to do trials in 2010. Conventional growers are adopting RT more regularly now, and without the hesitancy observed under our first NESARE project. Our learning community of growers and researchers continues to expand into other states of the Northeast.

Results from replicated on-station trials

Long Term Conventional RT Experiment. (Freeville, NY)

In 2006 and 2007, two cultivars of sweet corn were grown in shallow zone-till, deep zone-till and conventional-till with three weed control regimes (conventional, 1/3 rate in-row + cultivation and cultivation only). There was no difference in yield by tillage treatment. 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. In 2006, 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 cultivar “Precious Gem” had higher yield (25.7 tons/ac) than the “Temptation” variety (9.6 tons/ac). In 2007, “Precious Gem” again had higher yield (6.9 tons/ac) than “Temptation” (6.4tons/ac). The yield of conventional weed control method (7.1 tons/ac) and 1/3 rate in-row + cultivation (6.8 tons/ac) were not different, but cultivation only plots had lower yield (5.9 tons/ac) than the other treatments.

In 2006 and 2007, dry bean cultivars “Redkanner Light Red Kidney” and “California Early Light Red Kidney.” As observed for sweet corn, the beans had no difference in yield due to tillage but significant differences were detected for variety and weed control treatments. The cultivation only had lower seed yield (2,785 Ibs/ac) than conventional (3289 Ibs/ac) and1/3 rate in-row + cultivation (3291 Ibs/ac) treatments. “Redkanner Light Red Kidney” had higher seed yield (3297 Ibs/ac) than “California Early Light Red Kidney” variety (2911 Ibs/ac).

In 2008 and 2009, sweet corn cv. ‘Temptation’ was grown with 120 lb N/A placed either deep or shallow in the tillage systems. The full amount of N is placed 8” deep, via a tube mounted on the back of the shank for the zone builder. Deep placed liquid N (UAN) and conventional dry fertilizer N were compared for impacts on growth, yield and tip fill. While there was no effect of tillage on the yield of sweet corn, the cultivation only plots had significant weed pressure and sweet corn yield losses. There were no yield differences between conventional fertilizer applications and deep placed N. This verifies results found in trials conducted on grower fields.

In 2008, acorn squash ‘Autumn Delight’ was grown in the long term RT experiment, and zone-till, deep zone till and plow-till were evaluated with three weed control regimes (conventional, 1/3 rate in-row + cultivation and cultivation only). There were no differences in yield or quality of squash due to tillage system or weed control method.

Root crops grown with RT (Freeville, NY)

In 2007, beets were seeded into three tillage treatments zone-till, deep zone till and plow-till with two weed control regimes (conventional, 1/3 rate in-row + cultivation). The conventional tillage system supported earlier and higher total yields of beets. Beet yield is related to the date of harvest. In both years of trials, the distribution of beets in different size classes, over two harvests, did not vary overall. Instead, beets grown in the zone and deep zone till system developed more slowly than those in conventional till.

In 2008, beets and carrots were seeded in this same field. There were no differences in yield among the tillage treatments for the beets. However, harvest was delayed in the reduced tillage system. For carrots, there was significantly lower marketable yield with the shallow zone tillage compared to the deep zone and conventional tilled plots. However, there were still significantly more culled roots in the deep zone till treatments, due to forking and crooks. In 2008, we also substituted a set of cultipacker wheels for the rolling basket on the back of a zone tillage unit, in an attempt to improve the soil conditions for direct seeding carrots. This substitution did not improve the crop stands.

In 2009, we added a wing to the shank of our deep zone builder, to try and improve the lateral shatter of the soil prior to seeding carrots. We started into a new field that had never had RT before this point. Excessive spring rains, however, resulted in uneven stand of carrots.

Organic RT experiments (Freeville, NY)

An organic reduced tillage system experiment was established in two fields at the Freeville Organic Research Farm, to allow two crops to be grown in each year. Conventional tillage was compared with deep zone tillage. Three cover crop/mulch combinations (Rye/vetch mow killed, oat/pea winter killed, oat/pea winter killed plus spring applied straw mulch) were used with both tillage systems. Two levels of soil disturbance from weed management (High and Low) were then applied to these plots. The crop rotation was as follows:

Field 1: Cabbage (2006), peppers (2007), cabbage (2008), peppers (2009)
Field 2: Peppers (2006), cabbage (2007), peppers (2008), cabbage (2009)

In summary, yields from both peppers and cabbage were similar under conventional and RT systems in 3 of 4 years.

Management of the organic RT system with hairy vetch/rye killed cover crop was challenging for several reasons. This cover crop was chosen because of the high amount of biomass it can produce, the potential for weed control from the cereal rye, and the nitrogen contribution of the hairy vetch. While this mulch was flail mowed prior to zone building, there were some plants that re-grew after mowing. This was due to having a rear mounted flail and tractor tires laying down some of the cover crop, so it was not mowed. In some cases, the re-growth of rye interfered with cultivation and with crop growth. The rye/vetch did provide some early season weed control, but as the residue decomposed, weeds established. By the end of the season, there was no difference between the rye/vetch and the oat pea plots for weed pressure. The residue then interfered with efficient cultivation or hand weeding. This residue also reduced the yield of cabbage in 2 of 4 years, and peppers in 1 of 4 years, compared to the oat/pea cover crop, regardless of the tillage system.

The treatment that had oat peas followed by in-season straw mulch spread by hand always had significantly lower weed pressure, in both crops. This mulch, however, did lower yields in peppers in three of four years and one of four years for cabbage, compared to the oat pea cover crop control. This treatment did result in a dramatic reduction early season weed germination over the four years of trials, in both fields. This benefit was not anticipated. The treated areas were identical over all four years in both fields.

Mechanical cultivation reduced weeds effectively in both systems. The use of mechanical cultivation in cabbage production was more effective than in peppers, due to the rapid canopy closure of the cabbage. Hand weeding was essential in pepper plots with rye vetch, since in-row mechanical weed control was complicated by the presence of cover crop residue.

In both fields, perennial weeds were noted by year two, as primarily dandelions. After two years, a fall disking was introduced to the fields to reduce some of these weeds, and to prepare the field for cover crop seeding.

Organic Multiyear Mulching Strategies for RT.

This experiment explored a reduced tillage strategy that might be appropriate to smaller organic farms that use plastic mulch. This focused on retaining the plastic mulch in place for two seasons. Since this is a practice not currently approved in certified organic production, we received a variance from the USDA via our certifier, NOFA-NY. Soil temperatures were cooler where there was no mulch used. N mineralization rates were higher under the 2 year mulch which had also received 15 t/a compost, whereas rates were similar between the bareground and the standard plastic mulch. An end of season measure of soluble N in 2007 indicated significant differences as follows: 2 yr plastic higher than Annual Plastic higher than no plastic. Both the compost rate and presence of plastic increased soluble N levels. In both years, the standard plastic mulch treatment had higher yields than either the two year or the bare ground treatments, despite differences in N applications.

Alternative cover crop residue management under organic RT. (Freeville, NY)

In 2009, a new experiment was initiated to determine if hairy vetch/rye mulch management could be manipulated to improve the performance of this cover crop in an RT system. Peppers were transplanted into either a killed oat pea, hairy vetch/ rye cover that was mowed, or the hairy vetch /rye cover that was mowed and then raked into the pepper row. This concentrates the residue in the row to improve weed control. In 2009, cool weather and high levels of rainfall resulted in very poor pepper growth. There were no differences among the treatments for pepper yield. The plots were mulch was concentrated in the row had significantly fewer weeds than the other treatments.

On Farm Trials

Crop response to reduced tillage

• RT Summer squash: Emergence rate, stand and plant size were higher for summer squash grown in deep zone tilled plots. The fresh top weight at 30 days after planting was 165g/m2 for the zone till treatment and 83g/m2 for the moldboard plow treatment.
• RT Pumpkins: In an on-farm trial, zone tillage was compared to conventional tillage for pumpkin production after killing a rye cover crop. Two applications of Roundup were applied after the rye was rolled and after the zones were built but before crop emergence. Strategy and Sandea herbicides were also used in both systems, applied after planting. In the conventionally tilled system, cultivation was used in addition to herbicides for adequate weed control. Both fields received the same rate of total N per acre. Crop establishment or plant stand in the conventionally tilled field was better than in the reduced tillage field. Plants developed at a slower rate in the reduced tilled fields compared to the conventionally tilled fields resulting in more weeds overall as the in-row and between row areas took longer for the plant canopy to fill in and shade out emerging weeds. The delay in maturity initially observed in the reduced till field concerned the grower in regard to maturity date, weeds, and overall yields. However, by the end of the season the plants had caught up but yields were slightly less due to the significant weed problem that resulted from skips and delayed plant development. Weed control and improved plant stands with the reduced tillage systems need to be improved.
• RT Butternut squash: Butternut squash was grown under zone tillage and conventional tillage, with conventional dry fertilizer banded at planting. Both treatments were cultivated and side-dressed. Plant stand was less than desired in both treatments, due to cool wet weather. The number of marketable fruit and the fruit weight at harvest were greater for the zone till plots.
• RT Carrots: Carrot stands, yield and quality were compared between moldboard plowed and deep zone tilled fields on two soil types (loam and muck). The plowed loam field had normal stands, but zone tilled fields had one half the expected stand. 81% of the carrots were marketable in the plowed fields (30.3 tons/acre, with 65% of that being the more valuable carrots 2+” in diameter. Average length was 6.8”). 70% of the carrots were marketable from zone tilled loam fields, with culls being forked, oversize, undersize or twisted (18.6 tons/acre with 74% of that being #1 grade. Average length was 6.3”). 22% were forked, with most of it beginning 2 – 4” from the soil surface. On muck soils, however, 95% of carrots were marketable from zone tilled fields (30.9 tons/acre with 34% of that being #1 grade. Average length was 6.3”.
• RT Black Turtle Dry Beans: Zone tilled black turtle soup dry beans had slower growth early in the season, possibly due to seeds being placed outside the zone tilled areas. Midseason plant wts were higher in moldboard plowed fields, but by the end of the season, there were no differences in yield between the two tillage systems.
• RT Cranberry Dry Beans: Zone tilled cranberry dry beans had higher mid-season fresh weights than conventionally plowed fields. Casual observation by digging up plants on July 15th showed the roots in the conventional field primarily in the top 5” of soil, while the roots in the zone tilled field went 8” deep. In early September primarily fibrous roots were in the top 5 to 6” of soil in the conventional field, while larger roots extended up to a foot deep in the zone tilled field. There was no difference in yield, harvest index (seed yield to total plant dry weight) or seed size between the treatments.
• RT Snap beans: Snap bean ‘Pix’ grown in zone tilled fields had similar stand, plant weights mid-season, but lower yields than conventionally plowed fields. The grower has continued to experiment with this crop.

Time of zone building and cover crops

• In the fall of 2006, several tillage/cover crop treatments were established at Valatie Research Farm in Valatie, NY, Columbia County. Cover crops included rye, tritcale, and oats, each with either fall or spring zone building, plus a control spring conventional plowing. After rye and triticale were established, a 4-row Unverferth Deep Zone Rippper/Stripper unit was used to prepare half of each plot for spring 2007 planting, as was the unplanted oat plot. In the spring of 2007, the oat cover crop was established and the spring zone built plots were prepared with the same zone builder unit. Due to the density of the rye, these plots were mowed in early June to leave about 6” of stubble in the field and the rye cover crop residue was removed. The triticale and oats did not need to be mowed, leaving anywhere from 14-18” of top growth in the plots. Sweet corn was planted into each of the plots and sprayed with Lumax and Round-up the same day. In general, plots that were zone built in the fall had soil with higher bulk density than those zones built in the spring. Even though fall built zones were marked with flags, it was difficult to determine in all the cover crops where the fall zones were at the time of planting sweet corn in the spring. The plant population was very low in the fall zone built rye plots, compared to the rest of the treatments. Regardless of cover crop, stands in the spring zone built and conventional tilled plots were acceptable, (Valatie Research Farm).

Enhancing earliness in RT sweet corn

• In 2007 and 2008, a trial evaluated early sweet corn grown in reduced till systems covered with floating row covers versus more traditional moldboard plowed with row covers or grown under plastic. In 2007, using zone tillage with floating row covers produced corn within several days of plastic with less tillage and labor. On April 15, 2008, the conventional plowed plastic covered treatment was planted with a 2 row Pequea finger pick-up planter that had been narrowed to plant two rows 16” apart. These rows were then covered with 1.0 mil clear plastic. The following day, April 16, the conventional plowed row cover and zone built row cover treatments were planted with the same 2 row Pequea planter, but the planter units were moved to 30” centers. Row covers were applied to these two treatments the same day. The variety used was the early se (sugar enhanced) standard called ‘Temptation’ (70 days to harvest). All plots were sprayed with Lumax at 2.5 qts/acre + 32 ounces Round-Up Ultra prior to covering. Plastic was removed May 21, 2008. Rowcovers were removed June 17, 2008 after a severe thunderstorm had already lifted a majority of the cover off and the decision not to replace them was made. Plastic sweet corn was harvested four days earlier than the conventional till and zone built row cover treatments. However, plastic and conventional tillage sweet corn resulted in the lowest yields and smallest ear size. There were no significant yield differences between the conventional and reduced tillage with row cover treatments. (Valatie Research Farm)

Fertility Trials in RT crops

• Phosphorous inoculants in RT: In an on farm trial, processing sweet corn was planted in a deep zone tilled field where the use of Jump Start, a phosphate-solubilizing inoculant containing Penicillium bilaii, was compared side by side with uninoculated seed. The field was a Palmyra gravelly loam with a medium – high phosphorus soil test and a low rate of 15 lbs/acre of P2O5 fertilizer was applied. The treatments were Jump Start, No Jump Start, and Jump Start - No Phosphorus. There were no significant differences in yield or ear quality except that the average ear length was significantly shorter in the Jump Start – No Phosphorus treatment (19.6 cm), compared to the Jump Start and No Jump Start treatments, 20.1 and 20.3 cm, respectively.

• Reduced-Till Sweet Corn Production at Two Nitrogen Rates. An experiment was designed to assess sweet corn performance to two nitrogen rates in both conventional and reduced tillage systems. Before establishing the plots, the rye cover crop was rolled twice with a coulter packer for the reduced-till strips and was flail chopped and rototilled in the conventional-till strips. Roundup WeatherMAX was applied at a rate of 22 oz/A to the reduced-till strips in order to kill any emerged weeds and any rye that was not killed previously by the rolling process. An Unverferth zone builder was used to cut, fertilize, and prepare the reduced-till strips. The sweet corn variety used was ‘Providence’. Nitrogen at 75 lbs N/ac was initially applied to all the treatments at planting. Only the sidedress rate was varied. For both tillage treatments, Urea (34-0-0) was applied as sidedress at 2 rates of 25 lbs N/ac and 75 lbs N/ac, bringing the total N application up to 100 lbs N/ac for the lower and 150 lbs N/ac for respectively. Stand counts in the reduced tillage plots averaged 450 plants per plot while conventionally tilled plots averaged lower stands of 290 plants, due to poor seed-soil contact due to improper incorporation and breakdown of the rye residue. The reduced tillage yields were higher than conventional tillage yields at the same nitrogen rates. This should be interpreted with caution especially that the conventional tillage plots suffered poor seedling establishment. Yields were not significantly different at the two N sidedress rates for both tillage treatments. (Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center)

• Controlled Release N Fertilizer: A trial was established to evaluate reduced tillage and conventional tillage systems under controlled release nitrogen and conventional nitrogen fertilizer programs in sweet corn production at one nitrogen rate of 120 lbs N/A. A field of rye was rolled with a coulter packer in the reduced-till (RT) strips and was flail chopped in the conventional-till (CT) strips. After the rye was rolled, Roundup WeatherMAX was applied to the RT strips in order to kill any emerged weeds and any rye that was not killed previously by the rolling process. Rye was incorporated in CT strips with a rototiller to prepare for planting. An Unverferth zone builder was used to cut, fertilize, and prepare each RT replicate plot. In the controlled release program, all N was applied at planting (120 lb N/A). In the conventional fertilizer program, 40 lb N/A was applied at planting, 80 lb N/A at sidedress. For the reduced tilled plots, fertility treatments were a) Controlled release N program: 40 lbs N/A (10-10-10) applied with the seeder and Nitamin 30L (30-0-0), a liquid controlled release nitrogen (N), by injection with the Unverferth at a rate of 80 lbs of N/A to a depth of about 4” or b) conventional fertilizer program: 40 lb N/A applied a planting and sidedressed with 80 lbs N/A (34-0-0). In the conventional tillage plots, N treatments included a controlled release program: 40 lbs N/A (10-10-10) applied with the seeder and Nitamin 30L (30-0-0) was knifed in about 2” deep on either side of the planted row at a rate of 80 lbs N/A, or a conventional fertilizer program: 40 lb N/A applied a planting and sidedressed with 80 lbs N/A (34-0-0). Roundup WeatherMAX at a rate of 22 oz/A, Aatrex 4L at 3 pts/A, and Prowl H2O at 2 pts/A were applied on July 3. Late season weeds, in both tillage treatments, were controlled with Impact at 0.75 fl oz/A applied with mentholated seed oil (Succeed) at 1% v/v and 8.5 lbs ammonium sulfate per 1000 gallons. The nitrogen fertilizer source did not affect marketable yield or ear quality. However, CT plots had significantly higher yields than RT plots and matured 4 days earlier, regardless of N source used. Ear diameter was significantly affected by tillage practice where RT plots produced significantly wider ears than CT plots. In summary, controlled release nitrogen fertilizers can be used successfully in reduced-till and conventional-till fields without compromising marketable yield and ear quality. However, conventionally tilled plots produced significantly greater yields than reduced tilled plots and matured 4 days earlier than RT plots.(Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center)

• Deep placed slow release N: Some field corn growers who normally sidedress their corn have been putting the additional nitrogen as a slow release fertilizer 8” deep or more at the time of zone building. This can save the grower an additional sidedress pass over the field and allow the fertilizer to be there when the plant needs it. Treatments were: 40, 80 or 110 lbs of N/A as Nitan (32% or 3.5 lbs nitrogen/gallon) with or without the addition of Nitamin Nfusion (22% nitrogen solution of which 94% is slowly available) injected 6” deep during zone building or Control plots received the 40 lbs at planting and an additional sidedress of urea to supply another 80 lbs of nitrogen for a total of 120 lbs. Sweet corn of the variety ‘Serendipity’ (modified se type sweet corn, 74 days to harvest) was planted into the zones with 40 lbs of granular nitrogen put through the planter for a total of 80, 110 and 150 lbs of total nitrogen. Adding Nitamin Nfusion did not improve yields compared to a standard grower program of 120 lbs total nitrogen (40 lbs applied at planting, 80 lbs delivered as a sidedress of 80 lbs) or to using similar rates of straight Nitan. Average ear size was also smaller in the Nitamin Nfusion plots. It would also appear from our data that increasing nitrogen rates to 150 lbs of nitrogen did not increase yields enough to justify the additional fertilizer. (Valatie Research Farm)

• Slow release N for Pumpkins: An on-farm project was established to evaluate pumpkin yield under reduced tillage practices with controlled release nitrogen fertilizer at The Milk Pail in Watermill, NY, in cooperation with the grower Jennifer Halsey-Dupree. The demonstration project evaluated Nitamin 30L (30-0-0), a liquid controlled release nitrogen fertilizer from Georgia Pacific, at two nitrogen (N) rates, 80 and 100 lbs N/A, to the grower’s standard fertilizer practice of 100 lbs N/A. All pumpkins were grown under reduced tillage practices. In June, pumpkins were transplanted and 40 lbs N/A 10-10-10 granular fertilizer was band applied to all treatments. Subsequent fertilizer applications were made via drip tape along each pumpkin row. The controlled release fertilizer program at 80 and 100 lbs N/A involved half as many fertigation applications as the grower program and at double the amount of N/A applied per application. The controlled release fertilizer at the same rate as the growers program but half the frequency of application seems to produce better results. This could translate into time and labor savings on the farm.

Participation Summary


Educational approach:

Conference Presentations

We reached over 700 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, MOFGA Farmer to Farmer Conference). Several presentations at these regional meetings were focused on organic RT strategies. During these meetings, we were able to present research findings, RT successes and challenges. Because of the interest generated in the first NESARE grant, we have several growers who were comfortable with presenting their experiences at various meetings or hosting field days. Expert growers also traveled to other regions of NY to provide presentations on reduced tillage systems, equipment and economics.

Field days

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.


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.

We also developed a “Guide to Deep Zone Tillage” (attached) that highlights equipment set up and adjustments to optimize performance for vegetable systems. Included are important suggestions for planters as well as tillage units. This Guide has been shared at field days in 2009 and 2010 and at winter conferences in 2010.

Electronic Media

We upgraded our reduced tillage website (http://www.hort.cornell.edu/reducedtillage) and added additional publications, case studies, and presentations, to further disseminate information on these systems. 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.

Listing of Conference Presentations

Reduced tillage events hosted in 2007:

- Vegetable Expo Meeting, Syracuse, NY
The Empire Expo meeting was held from 13-15 February, 2007. A full day session was held jointly for RT and Soil Health. Topics discussed focused on how to make reduced tillage work in diverse soil conditions and deep nitrogen placement in zone tillage systems. About 100 people attended this session.

- Reduced Tillage Equipment Field Day at Branton Farm, Leroy, NY
A reduced tillage equipment field day held on August 10, 2007 at Donn Branton’s Farm, Le Roy, NY. About 40 people attended this meeting which focused on displaying, explaining and demonstrating different reduced tillage equipment.

- NYS Dry Bean Field Day and Tour
A dry bean field day and tour took place on September 6, 2007. One of the topics covered during this event includes zone tillage techniques for dry bean. Trials comparing zone and conventional tillage dry bean were also visited by the growers. About 30 people attended this event.

- Minimum Tillage Field Day
The Capital District Vegetable Program on July 6, 2007, held a minimum tillage field day at the Valatie Research Farm. The meeting was attended by 52 growers. The growers were shown the minimum tillage plots including a cover crop trial and fertility placement trial. A two row zone builder was also demonstrated. A two row planter was then pulled behind the zone builder to allow growers to see how a planter actually pulls in reduced till systems and to observe how uniform the seeds were placed. Growers had a hands-on experience using a penetrometer to compare compaction between conventionally tilled and zone tilled fields.

- Minimum Tillage Field Day
Another minimum tillage field day was held on July 24, 2007 in the Capital District Area. During this field day, three international companies displayed and demonstrated their reduced tillage implements to 25 vegetable, dairy and field crop producers: Unverferth Zone Builder manufactured by Unverferth Manufacturing Company, Aerway® Advanced Aeration Systems manufactured by Holland Equipment Limited, and the Salford RTS unit manufactured by Salford Farm Machinery Limited. Growers were able to see how each of these machines functioned in rye stubble.

- Rhode Island Field Day
A field meeting was held at Rhode Island on November 8, 2007. One of the 2-row zone tillage units built by our team was hauled to this meeting. Growers were able to see a demonstration of hoe the zone tillage equipment works. About 30 growers attended this meeting.

Reduced tillage events hosted in 2008:

- Empire State Vegetable Expo Reduced Tillage Session
The Soil Health and Reduced Tillage Sessions at the 2008 Empire State Fruit & Vegetable Expo, Syracuse, NY, took place on February 13, 2008. It included 3 hours of reduced till programming, with 3 grower speakers, 1 reduced till equipment dealer speaker. Two Cornell speakers summarized NESARE reduced till trials in 2007 and educated growers on equipment/planter adjustment. The DVD “Vegetable Growers and Their Sustainable Tillage Practices” was also shown. About 75 growers attended the reduced tillage part of the session.

- Reduced Tillage Field Day at Gill Farms, Kingston, NY
A reduced tillage field day was held on July 2, 2008 at Jack Gill’s Farm. About 40 people attended this meeting which focused on displaying, explaining and demonstrating reduced tillage equipment and systems. Mr. Gill transitioned to RT this year and has found significant savings in fuel, labor and overall costs of production for sweet corn. These savings allowed for payoff of his new 6 row zone builder ($45,000) in the first year of use. Growers followed up with questions to the RT team about equipment, planters and crops suitable to RT.

- Planter Clinic, Albany NY,
A one day in-service (March 20, 2008) focused on all aspects of improving vegetable crop production. A specific presentation by our team focused on improving planters to work in residue. About 40 people attended, and numerous follow up calls were made by the team to attending growers.

- Capital District Reduced Tillage Field Day
The Capital District Vegetable Program on July 9, 2008, held a minimum tillage field day at the Valatie Research Farm. The meeting was attended by 25 growers. Growers were able to view the three minimum tillage trials that took place at the Farm including the sweet corn cover vs. tillage system, reduced tillage nitrogen trial and reduced till pumpkins into two different cover crops trial. We also demonstrated the 2-row Unverferth Ripper Stripper and how we put the liquid fertilizer into the zones. We also demonstrated several after market parts attached to a corn planter including row cleaners and Keeton Seed Firmers that we feel are wise investments for growers to purchase if deciding to use reduced tillage systems.

- Western NY Reduced Tillage for Fresh Market Vegetables Field Day
A minimum tillage field day was held on August 26, 2008 in Lockport, NY. About 23 people attended. The field day focused on use of RT with squash, pumpkins and sweet corn. The host, Jim Freatman, has transitioned much of his curcurbit acreage to RT. Our two row unit was demonstrated for growers to consider using the following spring. Given that most of these growers are very diversified, several expressed concern about investing in the equipment to do zone tillage.

-Reduced Tillage for Fresh Market Vegetables Field Day
This field day (August 8, 2008) was hosted by one of our more experienced RT growers, Lynn Fish. About 23 people attended, and most were new vegetable farmers. Our two row unit was again highlighted and made available to growers for trials.

-Reduced Tillage for Beans Field Day
A field day and tour took place on September 9, 2008, at the Jeffries farm in Byron NY. About 22 growers attended and learned about trials with snap and dry beans in RT systems.

-Empire Farm Days Demonstration
Empire Farm Days (August 8-10, 2008) is NY’s major summer farm show, highlighting equipment and materials to enhance crop production and marketing. We had a display at the show. Over 100 growers visited with RT team members on transitioning to RT systems for vegetables. The small two row unit built in 2007 was displayed, along with fertilizer injection systems to allow deep placement of liquid N. Residue management was also discussed. Team members described how off-the-shelf coulters and row cleaners could increase the success of transition to RT systems.

-Long Island Twilight meeting
Reduced tillage trials were highlighted at an organic farmer twilight meeting at the Long Island Horticulture Research and Extension Center on August 16, 2008. About 10 growers attended.

-Sturbridge Zone Till and Soil Health Conference.
This one day workshop was hosted by Jude Boucher. Four NY RT team members presented at the conference, including one grower (George Ayres). The team highlighted designing RT systems for large and small seeded, transplanted, and organic vegetable production. Results from NESARE RT projects were shared. Over 80 growers attended the conference and requested additional information from the project, as they were released.

Reduced tillage events hosted in 2009:

-MidAtlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention, Hershey, PA
During this organic production focused session, “Reduced Tillage for Organic Vegetable Production” was presented to about 85 growers.

-PASA Conference, State College, PA
A presentation on Reducing Tillage for Organic Vegetable Systems was presented to an audience of 150 growers, with standing room only. Eric Nordell also spoke about his reduced tillage approach on his farm.

- Empire State Vegetable Expo Meeting, Syracuse, NY
The Empire Expo meeting was held from 10-12 February, 2008. A full day session was held jointly for RT and Soil Health. Topics discussed focused on how to make reduced tillage work in diverse soil conditions, and grower transitions to RT. About 100 people attended this session.

-Cornell Organic Research Farm Field Day
Participants observed RT equipment in operation, the newly built mulch mover and examined research trials on organic RT. About 80 people were in attendance at this 8/17 event.

-Reduced Tillage for Beans Field Day
A field day and tour took place on August 20, at the Stettner farm in Byron NY. About 48 growers attended and learned about trials with snap and dry beans and sweet corn in RT systems.

Reduced tillage events hosted in 2010:

-- NOFA NY conference, Saratoga Springs NY
On January 23, Anu Rangarajan and Rob Johanson hosted an organic RT workshop. Anu talked about our research with organic reduced tillage and basic soil benefits of reduced tillage. Rob presented his farm history, how he started into RT using the Yeoman plow, crops grown and his ideas on reduced tillage. 100 people attended the session.

- Empire State Vegetable Expo Meeting, Syracuse, NY
On January 27, 2010 at the Reduced Tillage Session, several presentations highlighted progress thus far. A grower panel highlighted how they were introduced to zone tillage, their equipment, crops grown with zone tillage, fertility management and modifications they have made over time. They also gave tips for ‘new’ reduced tillage growers. This session was followed by a panel discussion of equipment dealers who have zone till units available for rental.

-Reduced Tillage Videoconference
On February 11, we hosted a videoconference with four participating locations, titled “Planning the Transition to Reduced Tillage Systems: Equipment, Fertility and Weed Control.” Sixty people attended including 46 growers, 6 Cornell Cooperative Extension Educators, 3 Cornell staff, 4 Cornell Faculty and one University of Vermont Extension Educator. The program included the following presentations on incorporating Cover Crops into Reduced Tillage Systems; Setting Up a Reduced Tillage Trial on Your Farm; Equipment Options: A Quick Overview- ; Deep-Placed Nitrogen Experiences; Equipment for Liquid Fertilizer Application; Weed Management in Reduced Tillage Systems; and Disease Management in Reduced Tillage Systems.

-Reduced Tillage Planter Clinics
Planter clinics were held in three regions of NY in February following the videoconference. These hands-on clinics emphasized on how to make your planter work optimally. 87 people attended the planter clinics.

-Small Farm Equipment Field Day
This field workshop was hosted at the Cornell Organic Research Farm. Over 70 people attended the event, and 40 attended the in-depth discussion on applying RT to small vegetable farms and in organic systems.

No milestones

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

It was our goal to have 30 vegetable growers transition to reduce tillage systems as a result this NESARE proposal. We were able to document 11 growers who have committed to making permanent changes to reduce tillage on their farms, although one will not yet be using RT on vegetables. We know of several other farms that have transitioned in the last several years, but could not say that this was a direct outcome of our efforts. It is likely that our project did have an influence, since our successful growers are now presenting in other parts of the region on RT. Most of these farms were partners for on-farm RT demonstrations, and had the benefit of some one-on-one consulting with the project team. For several farms, we conducted detailed interviews to calculated partial enterprise budgets for sweet corn. We also used follow up interviews to verify with each farmer their cost savings and perceived benefits of using RT on their farm. Our survey and economic data are summarized in other sections of this report.

There were several other important outcomes of our work promoting RT on vegetable farms in the Northeast. Researchers and educators in several other states (MA, CT, RI, VT, ME, PA) have now started conducting demonstrations with RT on vegetable farms in their areas. Our project team has served as consultants and speakers to many of these efforts over the last 4 years. This has resulted in additional growers developing unique approaches to RT to address challenges. We are now trying to capture their experiences and stories for sharing via extension publications in other parts of the region. We are also now supporting development of these systems in the Midwest, through collaborative research and education projects and invited presentations. The project PI has also consulted with researchers in other parts of the world who are interested in adapting RT methods to very low resource farmers.

We anticipate that we will start working with some very experienced organic farmers to test organic RT approaches. Given the challenges observed thus far, we are very clear with these growers to start small, and proceed slowly. We have concluded after 4 years of study that permanent RT systems are not possible on organic farms. At some point in the crop rotation, inversion tillage (mold-board) plowing will be required to address perennial weed pressure. While we do have one organic field with plots that have been maintained in 100% RT, we had another field that we plowed due to weed buildup.

Other future work will investigate a modified RT approach in which the shanks are moved very close together, on a bed, to improve lateral soil shatter and hopefully conditions for carrot production.

Growers have reported that fields that have had deep zone tillage drain more quickly and also are more drought resistant. We do not, however, have good data to support these observations. In our future research, we will examine the impacts of deep zone tillage on soil water dynamics and the incidence of Phytophthora capsici. This devastating disease is spreading among vegetable fields around the Northeast, and could render many of these fields no longer suitable to vegetables if management strategies are not developed. We believe that this RT system may allow a farmer to harvest for a longer period due to delayed disease onset. This may become even more important if weather patterns and extreme or erratic rain events continue to develop as a result of climate change.

Economic Analysis

To estimate differences in costs of reduced and conventional tillage for New York vegetable producers, we created partial budgets for seven farms. These farms were surveyed in person and some provided detailed financial reports. These interviews required between 2 and 3 hours, provided records were prepared. These budgets compare Deep Zone Tillage (DZT) systems for sweet corn production with conventional approaches previously or currently used on the farms. While the survey focused on sweet corn, the results apply to all large-seeded crops and some bare-ground transplanted crops such as cabbage.

We focused only on what was different between the DZT and conventional approaches—that is, if seed costs, etc, were the same between the two systems they were left out of the partial budgets. We included ownership, maintenance, fuel, and labor costs for each piece of equipment and the tractor used to pull it. The budgets do not focus on the specific costs of converting from conventional to DZT, in fact all equipment is assumed to have been bought new and was now in the middle of its useful life (see assumptions below).

We found that all six farmers saved an average of $39 per acre by using reduced tillage. They also saved an average of 3.2 gallons of fuel and 0.38 hours of labor time per acre. Based upon grower records and data, labor savings averaged 37% and fuel savings 40% for the reduced tillage system compared to primary tillage for field preparation. Grower estimates of savings in fuel ranged from 27 to 60% and savings in labor costs ranged from 25 to 60%.

If a farmer tended to use good conservation tillage before the switch to DZT, the savings tended to be lower, while those farms where extra heavy tillage was the norm showed large savings. Similarly, farms where soil had been severely compacted often showed a yield increase after the switch to DZT, while other farms and research results have generally demonstrated similar yields between RT and conventional tillage.

As an example, one producer felt he had very low field operation costs due to using fully depreciated equipment. According to his figures, RT sweet corn planting cost $5 more, due to the cost of his (newer, non-depreciated) RT cart. He listed $10/acre for zone building and $16/A for chisel/disc/field cultivate. He saved a spray pass in the conventional approach but needed to sidedress, adding a net $2 extra cost to the conventional tilled crop. However, he also saves $10 in herbicide costs in RT by banding. Overall, he calculates his RT approach saves him about $13/A.

If we substitute more typical tillage cost values based upon the 2008 PA Custom Rates , we would use $19.39 for a zone building cost, and $16.65 for chisel plowing + $15.20 for discing + $13.90 for field cultivating for a total conventional tillage cost of $45.75. Under this scenario he saves $33/A in his RT system.

Technical information and Assumptions

Information from the interviews was transferred into excel partial budget spreadsheets. These spreadsheets used the following assumptions:

Ownership cost of equipment was based on the famers’ reported new cost values. The nominal annual cost of ownership for a given piece of equipment was calculated based on a useful lifetime of 2000 hours over 10 years, using a straight line amortization @ 7% per year interest. If a piece of equipment was used for 200 hours per year, based on the farm’s number of acres and the reported equipment use rate of so many acres per hour, then 100% of this nominal annual ownership cost was used. Otherwise, the ownership cost was pro-rated according to the percentage of actual usage hours compared to 200. For instance, if the equipment was used 300 hours, the yearly ownership cost was calculated as 150% of the nominal value. If the actual usage hours were less than 100, the yearly ownership cost was set at 50% of the nominal value, since a 20 year useful lifetime is likely to be about the maximum for equipment, even if it is lightly used. The annual ownership cost is then divided by the number of acres covered, to calculate an ownership cost per acre for that piece of equipment. If the same piece of equipment is used for separate operations, such as a disc used in both spring and fall, the ownership cost is calculated for each operation since the total life of the equipment is being used up faster.

Maintenance costs were computed at 20% of the ownership costs.

Tractors were handled the same way as the equipment they pull, except that the useful lifetime of a tractor is set at 4000 hours. In a few cases, older small tractors were used for some tasks. These were given a lifetime of 2000 hours and the tractor value was based on the used price.

Gallons of diesel fuel used per acre were based on information from the farmers. The price of diesel fuel was set at $4.00, based on farmer consensus when the interviews were taken.

Labor costs were calculated by dividing a nominal rate of $15/hour by the number of acres per hour for each operation.

The total cost of each operation was the equipment ownership cost + the equipment maintenance cost + the tractor ownership cost + the tractor maintenance cost + the fuel cost per acre + the labor cost per acre. The proper tractor was matched to each piece of equipment.
Partial budget schedules were prepared for the conventional and reduced tillage approaches based on the farmer interviews. Only operations and materials that were different between the two approaches were included, so if the same planter was used at the same seeding rate and same acres per hour, it was not included in the partial budget.

Yields were assumed to be the same between the two approaches, which was consistent with our research plots and most farmer experience.

Farmer Adoption

Grower Experts: These individuals have been providing leadership and peer-to-peer mentoring of farmers interested in testing RT on their farms. These growers have been pivotal to the success of this NESARE funded effort.

Expert 1 is one of the NY leaders in promoting reduced tillage for vegetable crops. He has served as an advisor to this effort since it started. He is always seeking to reduce fuel and labor costs and improve soil health. He does all of his acres with zone tillage. He uses straight zone tillage on his sweet corn (zone til cart) and does some deep tillage with his sweet corn. He built a small two row unit for use with his strawberries. He successfully planted strawberries in a deep zone tillage system. He discusses this in a video produced by Vern Grubinger (Tillage Systems for Vegetables) that can be seen at our website (www.hort.cornell.edu/reducedtillage). He is trying to consider ways to incorporate more cover crops into his zone tillage systems. He wants to further improve his soil quality, based upon the Cornell Soil Health Test.

Expert 2 started considering reduced tillage to save on fuel and time and improving the soil health. He purchased a 5 row ripper to use on 155 acres of corn and pumpkins. He built a 2 row ripper stripper for use on smaller acreage crops. He did deep zone tillage on his tomatoes, cabbage, late sweet corn, all vine crops, peppers, and maybe strawberries. He may adapt his equipment to attempt deep N placement for zone tilled sweet corn. He is now doing reduced tillage on about 70% of his land (126 of 180 acres). He has planted sweet corn, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes and peppers in zone tilled ground. He plans to continue expanding his acreage of zone till in the future. He estimates that he saves nearly 60% in fuel and labor costs with the reduced tillage system. Hi has observed the following benefits to his farm: fuel and labor savings, more consistent and higher yields, better soil drainage, fewer crop failures, and less transplant shock. His primary challenge with the system is annual weed control.

Expert 3 is one of our most experienced growers using reduced tillage systems in vegetables. He started using reduced tillage to improve soil health and crop yields. His approach is to use deep zone tillage with deep N placement for sweet and field corn. He also uses notill for his grains and peas. He is one of the leaders in NY promoting reduced tillage systems. He owns all the needed equipment to make his system work. All 369 of his vegetable acres are reduced tilled. He plants sweet corn, dry beans and peas in the system, and uses an Unverferth 12 row ripper stripper. He estimates that his fuel savings with zone till are 57% and labor savings are 63%. Benefits he has observed for the system include improved yields, soil health, soil life (microbes and worms), better soil water management, better fuel efficiency and better labor management and efficiency. He sees the main challenge of reduced tillage for vegetables as being able to convince other growers to test the system. In the future, he hopes to increase his use of cover crops to further improve soil health.

Expert 4 started doing reduced tillage to save fuel and labor, improve soil health and improve crop quality. He purchased a four row Unverferth deep zone ripper/stripper. In 2009, he started his sixth season of testing RT systems on his farm. Of his 140 vegetable acres, he used reduced tillage on 115 (82%)of these acres. In 2009, he planted sweet corn, pumpkins and cauliflower. He does plan to expand his acres further. He estimates that he saves about 30% in fuel costs and 20-25% in labor costs with the deep zone tillage system. Benefits he has observed of reduced tillage system for vegetables: earlier spring planting because it does not take as long to get ground ready, better able to maintain a planting schedule, increased organic matter, less compaction, improved soil health and increased earth worm population. By placing nitrogen during zone building, he eliminates an extra sidedressing pass later in the season. In addition, the plant is able to access the nitrogen, since it is directly under the roots. With deep zone tillage, he has less equipment to own and repair. Some challenges or concerns of reduced tillage for vegetables include weed control and changing weed species, cover crop and or residue management in general, and the need to make sure that tractor horsepower is matched to tillage equipment. He comments, “I can get done quicker and am able to do other things, even if it’s to eat dinner with my family. We can’t get much more for our product but we can shave some costs off to improve our profitability and using reduced tillage is where I have been able to do that.”

Growers New to Reduced Tillage Systems

Grower 1 was interested in reducing wind erosion on his farm, plus saving time and fuel for tillage. He used the Cornell two row zone builder for a trial on his farm in 2009. He tilled 1 acre with the unit and planted sweet corn. He plans to expand his acreage of reduced tillage next year with the purchase of a two row unit. His primary challenge is fertilizer application. He estimates that he saved about 33% on fuel and labor costs with the zone till system. He has observed lower wind erosion (a major concern on his sandy soils) as well as lower fuel use and time needed for field preparation.

Grower 2 has not been satisfied with his results with a reduced tillage system for vegetables. He finds uniformity, maturity, weed control, incorporation of plant residue for disease management, and incorporation of organic nutrients to be challenging in these systems. He does use zone tillage on field corn and soybeans, where he has observed about 67% savings in labor costs, but no fuel savings. He remains cautious about use in vegetable systems.

Grower 3 started experimenting with reduced tillage on his farm because of a concern with loss of soil organic matter from moldboard plowing and disking and problems with drainage and ponding in some fields after heavy rains. In some cases, this poor drainage led to some crop losses. He has been using reduced tillage strategies on all his crops, including nearly all of his 1000 acres of vegetable crops (except organic land). He comments, “We take pride in the fact that all of our cropping operations have dropped at least 1 tillage pass from their programs in the last 3 years.” Because he has a larger dairy herd, he has modified his reduced tillage approach to incorporate manure on his fields. His strategy involves a ripper followed by an Aerway, which provides full width surface soil disturbance. The Aerway preserves soil structure compared to a disk, and can eliminate some surface compaction and crusting, while incorporating manure. Based upon cost data provided by the grower, his savings in fuel per acre is 2.4 gallons (48% reduction) and labor hours saved are 0.27 or 43% reduction in time for his reduced compared to his previous conventional tillage strategies. Some challenges he faces are transplanting cabbage into his reduced till system, since the transplanter, though designed for no-till vegetables, still does not handle surface residue well and reducing tillage in organic systems. Other concerns are soil incorporated herbicides.

Grower 4 was interested in testing reduced tillage systems on his farm to save fuel and labor costs, while improving soil health. He first tried zone tillage in his field corn production (390 acres). He has found that by using RT with his field corn, he was able to get all of this crop planted prior to having to start his vegetable field preparation and planting. The labor efficiency improved his flexibility and timeliness with his vegetable production in the spring. He is able to zone till about 5 acres/hr with his 6-row Unverferth ripper stripper. He transitioned his 55 acres of sweet corn to zone tillage and has tested the system for squash production (on-farm trial in 2007). Based upon cost data provided by the grower, his savings in fuel per acre is 2.67 gallons (37% reduction) and labor hours saved are 0.24 or 44% reduction in time for his reduced compared to his previous conventional tillage strategies. Beyond these cost savings, he has observed that after about the third year of zone tillage, the soils show a better structure and looseness that allows the zone builder to pull much easier (less horsepower). One challenge he has faced with zone tillage is dealing with surface crop residue, either as rye cover crop or from field corn stalks. Current field corn varieties have very strong stalks that resist breakdown in the spring. Any weather delays to killing a cover crop can result in too much biomass on the soil in a reduced tillage system. This biomass interferes with zone building, planting and cultivation later in the season. Too much cover crop residue prevented him from planting his squash in zone till in 2009. In the future, he would like to test zone tillage with cabbage, but this crop has a different row spacing (36") than his sweet corn (30"), which affects planting and cultivating.

Grower 5 is interested in improving soil quality and reducing input costs. He would like to test strip and zone tillage in cabbage and winter squash. He would need to either borrow equipment or fabricate it. He has not yet tested zone tillage on his farm. He may put in an on-farm trial in summer of 2010 if loaner equipment is available from a local dealer.

Grower 6 as transitioned much of his farm to reduced tillage over the last four years. He started his program with dry beans, and has not moved to include his processing snap bean acres. Reduced tillage included 14” deep ripping, and preparation of the planting strip with a zone builder a day or two before planting. At the initial stages, the zone till crops appeared to have shown delayed growth. However, the zone tilled plots soon caught up with the conventionally tilled plots. Tom harvested and weighed one combine pass the length of the field in each treatment. Dry bean yield from zone till (800 lbs) was not significantly different from moldboard plow (820 lbs). In 2008, he had a total of 306 acres dry beans and planted 144 to RT. Of his 111 acres snap beans, he planted 26 to RT. In 2009, his total vegetable/dry bean acreage was 2,300, and about 500 of these acres were in deep zone tillage. All snap and dry beans were planted into RT. On snap beans, he recorded about 4.5 ton/acre yield on 100 RT acres. Other crops he planted into zone tillage included field corn, soybeans, and wheat. Tom sees benefits of healthier roots and good weed control. The primary challenges are residue management and getting the fields level enough to allow for snap bean or pea harvesting. Tom has two different zone builders. Originally, he used a 12 row Unverferth, but this needed to be replaced from wear. He recently added a 12 row Brillion. He plans to expand his RT acreage.

Grower 7 got interested in RT for soil health, conservation and to reduce costs associated with labor back in 2004. He tried no-till several years ago, but went back to conventional tillage. He started by planning to do deep zone tillage, then eventually transitioning to shallow zone tillage after soil quality improves. He started first with field corn. He is adapting and building his own units on the farm. He built his own 12-row ripper stripper. He estimates that he saved about 27% in fuel costs, but is uncertain about labor saving. He does know it took less time to prepare and plant. He finds less compaction, much better growth on headlands, and fuel savings to be major benefits of zone tillage. His challenge is getting the proper ripper and coulter set up to end up with the crop row worked up to be flat or raised, and not depressed in a gully. This is a problem with dry beans, since they set pods low on the plant.

Grower 8 farms 820 acres of which 220 acres are in vegetables. He wants to transition to reduced tillage systems to improve farm drainage for disease management, to improve soil health, to reduced labor and fuel costs, to improve crop quality and reduce labor needed for picking up stones. He purchased a 6-row Unverferth Deep Zone Ripper Stripper. In 2009, he started his third year using reduced tillage systems for vegetables. Of his 210 vegetable acres, 180 was deep zone tilled. He planted pumpkins and sweet corn in this system. He plans to expand his use of RT in field crops, but not vegetables, since he does not have any more acres to zone till. He estimates that he saves 30-35% on fuel costs and 25% on labor costs using deep zone tillage. Benefits he has observed include better water drainage (esp. Phytophthora), improved stress tolerance of crops to weather fluctuations (too much or not enough moisture), and a community benefit, since during heavy periods of rain, there is reduced erosion of soil and may, in some cases, catching some of that soil before it goes into surface water. Concerns or challenges he has with the RT system include residue management (cover crops and previous crops especially in certain weather conditions), disease and insect carryover since residue is not buried, seed placement directly into the zone, and deciding if can do cultivation with traditional cultivation equipment. He comments, “Reduce tillage is the direction that we will be going with more and more with our vegetable crops especially with crops such as cauliflower, cabbage etc., as we expand our knowledge base and experience using low impact tillage in the future.”

Grower 9 transitioned to reduced tillage systems to improve farm drainage for disease management, to improve soil health, to reduced labor and fuel costs, to improve crop quality and reduce labor needed for picking up stones. Of his 200 acres, 100 are in vegetables. In 2009, he deep zone tilled 50 acres, and planted sweet corn and pumpkins. He owns a 4-row Unverferth deep zone ripper/stripper. He does plan to increase his RT acres. He estimates that he saves about 25-30% in fuel costs and 20-25% in labor costs with the RT system. Benefits he has observed of RT systems for vegetables include timeliness of planting to maintaining a planting schedule, especially during wet seasons, labor and fuel savings, less wear and tear on equipment and less equipment in general to own and repair. Challenges or concerns he has for these RT systems are cover crops selection and integration, and weed control. He comments: “I wouldn’t go back to traditional plow tillage.”

Grower 10 farms 1,600 acres, sweet corn is the main crop with 100 acres mixed vegetables, 150 grain corn, 1350 sweet corn. He has been thrilled with the results of RT on his farm. He transitioned to zone tillage for cost savings, benefits to soil and yield increase. In the past, his initial field preparation included moldboard plowing, disking twice and then following with a cultipacker to prepare a seedbed. By switching to a zone builder for primary tillage, he has reduced field passes from four to one. In spring of 2008 a 12-row Unverferth model 130 zone builder was purchased. 1280 acres (80% of total land) were deep zone tilled. This included 1100 of the 1350 (81%) sweet corn acres, 10 of the 25 (40%) snap bean acres, all 20 pumpkin acres (100%) and all 150 grain corn acres. Initial observations have been that the stand in his sweet corn is more uniform, and there were no differences in yield between zone till and conventional till sweet corn. He prepared a detailed cost analysis of conventional versus zone tillage. With conventional tillage, the total cost for the fall soil preparation for two passes with a disking ($9,187) and v-ripping ($23,504) was $32,692. The cost in spring was ($52,237), plus the fall was ($32,692) making the overall cost a total of $84,929. The overall cost for using the zone tillage method was calculated as the sum of the fall ($18,375) plus the spring planting soil preparation ($15,750) or $34,125. Comparing the cost of the zone tillage ($34,125) to conventional tillage ($84,929), a savings of $50,804 was realized in one year by the use of the zone tillage method on this farm. The grower hosted a field day and shared his enthusiasm with about 25 other growers. He commented that if he stopped doing RT today, and added up all the money that he had saved on fuel and labor, he would have already paid for the $45,000 8-row zone builder that he purchased.

Grower 11 farms 35 acres of mixed vegetables, including sweet corn, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, cucurbits, cole crops, and peppers. He had wanted to try zone tillage but was unable to find a small unit to test from a dealer. All that dealers had available were 4 and 6-row units, requiring much higher horsepower than his farm tractor. He borrowed the Cornell 2 row Unverferth in the spring of 2010 and tested deep zone tillage on 2 acres of soil. He planted sweet corn, beans cucumbers and planned to test cole crops later in the season. He sees this tool as fitting into his field preparation on his multiple soil types. He plans to buy his own unit next year.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

Future research should continue to explore the application of equipment based RT methods to both organic production systems as well as with small seeded and root crops. This research project was able to highlight some successful strategies. The inconsistent results, however, with these two areas, suggests the need for other solutions to RT constraints.

For root crops, alternative tips or shapes of the DZT shanks or their spacing on a tool bar are two areas to manipulate to improve soil conditions for a crop like carrots. One grower in the Northeast has successfully grown RT carrots by using three shanks on a 60” bed. This approach was not possible with the equipment at our research facility. We are building a new deep zone builder using a Yeoman’s plow, and will place three shanks on a tool bar to replicate and test this growers approach. This approach would also be suitable to direct seeding multiple rows of leafy greens or transplanted crops on a bed.

Other areas of work include design of alternative DZT equipment for small scale farms with less than 45 HP tractors. We have identified several farm built designs as well as some lower cost commercial options. These need to be tested on more farms, in different soil types and with different crops.

Examination of the impacts of DZT on soil water dynamics is the focus of our next research efforts. We believe that DZT may provide significant improvements to drainage and drought management in vegetable fields. This will decrease risk of crop loss to some diseases, such as Phytophthora capsici, or to flooding events that may become more frequent with climate change.

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.