Optimizing Strawberry Production with a Reduced Tillage System

Final Report for ONE10-122

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2010: $14,574.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Laura McDermott
Cornell University Cooperative Extension
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Project Information


This project sought to demonstrate that growing matted-row June-bearing strawberries using a reduced tillage approach would result in better weed control and less need for herbicides during the establishment year; better drainage in compacted soils; improved vigor and yield during the first bearing year and a lower overall cost of production while working towards improving soil health.

The results indicate that substituting reduced tillage for primary tillage in the establishment of matted row June bearing strawberries does not have a predictable impact, either negative or positive, on weed population or competition when compared to fields that have been prepared for planting using primary tillage. Herbicide usage was decreased only in terms of pre-emergent weed control for year 1, and since all of the growers studied chose to chemically kill the cover crop, the overall reduction in herbicides was not realized.

Strawberry yield in the reduced till treatments was not predictably increased in terms of quantity or quality when compared to conventionally established treatments. However, the predicted savings in terms of labor, fuel and equipment usage, there is evidence that using a reduced tillage approach when planting strawberries may be a more profitable approach.

The limited data from this trial does indicate that using a no-till approach has a negative impact on crop establishment, overall vigor and yield of matted row strawberries.

The longer term benefits of improved soil health characteristics and lower incidence of root disease could not be determined from this trial, but using a cover crop as part of a reduced till approach would likely increase soil organic matter and active carbon. This in turn would improve soil biological activity and help improve water infiltration, rooting, water transmission and water retention. These improvements in soil characteristics would help lower incidence of root disease often associated with compacted, poorly drained soil.


The local food movement and more health conscious consumers have created an excellent market for locally grown berry crops in the northeastern United States but increasing fuel, labor, fertilizer and pest control costs have caused strawberry growers to explore alternative production systems. Some of these systems, like annual cropping of day-neutral berries, show great promise for smaller direct market farms. Other systems, like plasticulture berries, seem to create more problems with increased input costs, disposal of plastic mulch, and an increased use of chemicals to prevent runner development. Biodegradable plastic, although very useful for many farm practices, is not approved for organic production.

This project came into being when we tried to determine a tactic that would reduce strawberry farmers’ hand weeding labor during the establishment year without increasing herbicide use or sacrificing weed control. We also wanted to improve the soil situation for matted row strawberries since many growers do not have the optimum soil type and heavy soils can result in disease, poor yield and short planting life.

Work done from 2007-2009 by Cornell University berry specialists concluded that a no-till approach showed promise, but that many strawberry growers did not have the appropriate equipment. Either tractors did not have the horsepower required to pull the subsoiler shank through the killed cover crop, or the “slit” left by a modified shank wasn’t deep enough to accommodate the long roots of a dormant strawberry plant. The researchers also noted that some sites had delayed runner rooting in the no-till plantings.

The option of using a reduced tillage approach, which provides a small tilled strip surrounding the plant, seemed like it would work. Reduced tillage has been found to be a valuable tool for agronomic crop farmers. From a farm profitability perspective, labor savings averaged 37% and fuel savings 40% for the reduced tillage system compared to primary tillage for field preparation. The range reported by growers for savings in fuel ranged from 27 to 60% and savings in labor costs ranged from 25 to 60% (Dr. Anu Rangarajan, Cornell University).

These same savings have been shown to exist for many vegetable farmers as well, and the possibility of decreasing establishment cost for strawberries while not sacrificing yield and quality of this high value crop was appealing.

Lastly, the potential of encouraging more berry growers to establish cover crops the year prior to planting was also possible in the reduced tillage system. Cover crops have been shown to improve soil structure and also inhibit weed seed germination. Limited access to good land makes the soil stewardship all the more important, and that is a real consideration for vegetable and berry growers in the Capital District of NYS. The Cornell Soil Health Test is an excellent tool to help growers understand the specific biological, physical and chemical constraints to their soil. Often cover crops can be used to remediate some of these soils and help address limitations determined by the CSHT. Reduced tillage works perfectly into an overall best management approach to soil stewardship.

Project Objectives:

In April 2010 the collaborating farmers and field research staff met and discussed the goals of the project. All of the farmers had been able to plant the prescribed area to a rye cover crop at 80# -120# per acre. We scheduled pre-tillage soil testing dates (CSHT and nutrient tests) and the farmers participated in that activity. Two of the farmers questioned the no-till treatment, and, after some discussion, we decided that a very reduced planting would be made in of no-till at those 2 farms. We chose the farms and dates for field meetings that year and generally discussed the same for 2011.

During the months May and June 2010 Chuck Bornt and Laura McDermott traveled to the three farms with the Unverferth zone tillage equipment and assisted growers with zone tillage. Growers planted strawberries according to planting design.

One month after planting, early season weed control was evaluated at all farms by taking replicated data for all treatments on all farms. This information was gathered by Laura McDermott using a 3 sq foot plot coordinate. Weeds were counted, identified and then dried and weighed.

During the summer of 2010 visual assessments of plant vigor was made by the PI. Growers were responsible for the care of the research plots including irrigation, blossom removal and weeding. During this time there was some mis-communication with Farm 2 regarding the need to keep all treatments, including hand weeding, irrigating etc. exactly the same within all treatments. It was also at this juncture that Farm 2 inadvertently removed the strawberries that had been planted in the no-till treatment. This left the trial with only one farm with a no-till treatment. This project was discussed and a demonstration of zone tillage was given at the Cornell Fruit Days held in late July 2010 at the NYSAES in Geneva, NY.

Late season weed control was evaluated at all farms in September of 2010 in the same manner as early season weed control. A field meeting was held to show results of 1st year efforts.

During the 2010-11 winter season, PI met with growers to collect farm input costs. Growers were responsible for proper winter mulching etc. After winter mulch removal, Laura McDermott visited each plot and assess vigor and growth of berry plants. There were some problems with plant wintering on Farm 2 and too little mulch may have been part of the reason that about 15% of the plants did not make it through the winter.

Using identical protocol from the previous season, a pre-season weed evaluation was made at each farm.

As berries just began to ripen, yield data was collected. This was done by harvesting all trusses from 3 randomly chosen plots within each treatment. The primary, secondary and tertiary berries were categorized and all berries counted and then weighed.

Farmers were responsible for renovating the strawberry research plot. Farm 2 did not renovate but rather tilled in the plot in order to re-plant to cool season vegetable crops.

Foliar leaf samples were collected from Farms 1 and 3 for each of the treatments. Analysis results showed no significant difference in plant fertility between any of the treatments, except that the no-till plants at Farm 1 were significantly or moderately deficient in almost all nutrients.

A second field meeting was held and the project data was presented. A final summary will be deliverd at the 2011 winter growers meeting.

Due to flooding events in the fall of 2011, there were no exit interviews with growers. The webinar series that initially was planned for the fall of 2010 did not happen, but plans are being made for a series of webinars during the winter of 2012-13. More newsletter articles, posters, presentations will be generated from the final results.


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Charles Bornt
  • Eric Gray
  • Albert Lansing
  • Timothy Stanton


Materials and methods:

This trial was replicated at 3 different farms. Farm 1 was a sustainable farmer that was trying to grow strawberries with very little herbicides. This farmer installed the trial in a killed sod and the soil was sandy loam (sand 53.1%, silt 45.8%, clay 1.1%). The overall soil health quality score from the Cornell Soil Health Test (CSHT) was 73.9. Physical attributes of the soil, specifically surface hardness, were the only real problem areas revealed. Surface hardness can negatively impact rooting and water transmission. Farmer 1 had a limited amount of experience growing strawberries.

Farm 2 was a conventional farmer that had no experience with reduced tillage and modest experience with strawberry production. This farm planted the trial into a sandy soil (sand 89.5%, silt 9.2%, clay 1.3%) The CSHT revealed an overall quality score of 43.1%. This test revealed challenges in many different biological and physical characteristics resulting in limits to soil aeration, water infiltration, plant rooting, water retention, water transmission and soil biological activity.

Farm 3 was a conventional farmer that had extensive experience using reduced till approaches with vegetable crops. The farmer also has been growing matted row strawberries very successfully for a number of years and works them into the vegetable farm rotation. Farm 3 planted the trial into a silt loam soil (sand 30.9%, silt 60.2%, clay 9.0%). Results of the Cornell Soil Health Test (CSHT) revealed an overall quality score of 60.7 (out of 100). The most obvious quality problem with this field was its active carbon rating which affects the soil biological activity. Excessive tillage is one management strategy that contributes to this situation.

Farm 1 installed 3 treatments: a conventional tillage treatment, a no-till treatment and a reduced till treatment. All three treatments were installed directly into a heavy grass sod that had been in sod for 15 years. For the no-till treatment, the sod was killed and the Unverferth ripper/stripper was used just to open up a slit for the berry plants to be installed. There was no tilled zone.

Farms 2 and 3 were not able to install a no-till treatment, so there were only 2 treatments at those farms; conventional till and reduced till, both of which were installed in fields that had been fall tilled and planted to a rye cover crop at 80#/acre along the trial section. On Farms 2 and 3, the rye cover crop was killed in the spring prior to strawberry planting using a non-selective herbicide. For the reduced till treatment on all 3 farms, the Unverferth ripper/stripper – modified for a 1 row system, created a 6” tilled zone in the cover crop and the berries were planted in that tilled zone.

The control treatment was where rye cover crop, or in the case of Farm 1, a killed sod, was completely incorporated prior to planting and the entire 8 rows were fitted traditionally.

Due to the variation in soil types and locations of the three farms, planting dates in 2010 varied dramatically. Coincidentally the weather in 2010 allowed for early planting and then turned extremely hot and dry for the remainder of the season. This may have contributed in a positive sense to the weed pressure during the establishment year.

Weed populations were monitored by randomly sampling 3 replications using a 3 sq ft measure within the berry row and then taking 3 more measurements between the berry row for each of the treatments. The weed evaluation was taken 1 month post planting and again in early September. The following spring weed data will be collected prior to harvest. Weeds were harvested, counted and identified. Then the weeds were dried in a drier and weighed.

Yield data was taken just as berries began to ripen. All berry trusses were harvested from 3 randomly selected areas within each treatment using the same 3 sq ft measure. The berries were then counted and identified as primary, secondary or tertiary berries and then weighed.

Research results and discussion:

The results from the study were variable. In Table 1, the dried weed weight from all sampling dates on all farms is reflected. All 3 farms saw significantly larger weeds during the first month after planting in the conventionally prepared trials than for the reduced till or no-till trials. However, this does not mean that there were more weeds, rather the data in Table 2 suggests that specifically for Farm 1 and 3 that the weeds were more numerous but much smaller in the reduced till treatment that in the conventional treatment. This may be explained because it took longer for the weeds to emerge through the killed cover crop.

Data in Table 2 suggests that numbers and types of weeds varied dramatically from farm to farm.

Farm 1 showed a higher number of perennial weeds than both other farms, due to the fact that this trial was installed into a killed sod on Farm 1. That high ratio of perennial weeds to annual weeds continued through the next 2 sampling periods. This tendency does not bode well for the productive life of the planting, as perennial weeds are difficult to eradicate once established in a matted row strawberry system.

Farm 2, whose data in Table 1 indicate that the weeds in the control treatment were larger one month after planting, still had higher numbers of weeds as illustrated in Table 2. This same trend was seen in the data from Farm 3 – larger weeds in the control treatment, but higher numbers of weeds in the reduced till treatment.

For all 3 farms, the differences in sizes of weeds in the three treatments diminished as time progressed and the farmer had more tools available to control weeds. The number of weeds however did not develop a clear pattern throughout the year of monitoring. This may be due to the individual farm weed pressure and the type of weeds existing on each farm.

Yield was measured by harvesting all the trusses from randomly selected areas within each treatment. The berries were counted, put in primary, secondary and tertiary categories and then weighed. For Farm 1 and 2 the control treatment yielded significantly more berries than did the reduced till or no-till treatments. Farm 3 however, which had the largest volume of berries of all 3 farms, yielded almost 1/3 more in the reduced till treatment than the control.

Results of this study are inconclusive, but there appears to be promise in using reduced tillage in a matted row strawberry system. This system may be useful for organic growers or to growers that need to better utilize their equipment.

From a farm profitability perspective, labor savings just for tillage averaged 37% and fuel savings 40% for the reduced tillage system compared to primary tillage for field preparation. The range reported by growers for savings in fuel ranged from 27 to 60% and savings in labor costs ranged from 25 to 60% (Dr. Anu Rangarajan, Cornell University). These figures are estimates from agronomic crops and some larger scale vegetable crops, but similar savings could be found on strawberries.

The reduced tillage approach would be more attractive if we could prove that yield of this high value crop would not suffer. The results from this study imply that farmers should experiment with reduced till in their matted row strawberries in order to maximize production and minimize costs.

Research conclusions:

The most important impact of this project may not be in terms of strawberry crop production, but rather in a better understanding of the importance of soil health and how small changes in management can have positive impacts. Much of the time spent with collaborators or attendees of field workshops or winter meetings was spend trying to explain the broader impact of soil, and the farmers’ role as steward. Tools like the Cornell Soil Health Test, and management approaches like Reduced Tillage and cover crop utilization provide great resources to extension agents.

The final verification process has not yet been completed as our outreach is ongoing, but this work will be evaluated along with broader work with cover cropping, tillage work and soil health work.

Secondary audiences are positively impacted by this work because less inputs in terms of labor, fuel and fertilizer will result in less waste in resources and perhaps a less expensive product. Environmental sustainability of farming in the northeast will positively impact consumers and residents.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Three field meetings and one winter workshop were held during the 18 month duration of this project. The statewide meeting held at the NYSAES in Geneva attracted about 100 growers from all over the northeast. At this meeting we were able to demonstrate zone tillage equipment and that generated significant excitement. This meeting was in late July 2012.

In late August of 2010, a second field meeting was held at one of the cooperating farms. There were 15 growers and 3 extension educators in attendance and general strawberry culture was addressed in addition to the zone tillage project.

In July of 2011 a third field meeting was held at cooperating farm #3. We discussed the reduced tillage project and also discussed day-neutral strawberry production topics. This farm cooperator had the best results in terms of yield in the reduced tillage treatments, and, although weed control was not perfect it did not negatively impact yield. 38 Farmers were present at this meeting.

In February 2012 an annual winter meeting was held where 75 farmers were in attendance. The final results of the project were presented. Some interest from farmers was noted, but it was also a discussion point that reduced tillage requires pre-planning and weather that works for that situation.

Articles and posters will be included in future newsletters and at meetings, but this goal has not yet been met.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The significant improvement of strawberry yield in the reduced till treatment at one farm was not seen at both other farm locations, so a clear and repeatable increase in farm revenue cannot be attributed to tillage choice. However, from a farm profitability perspective, labor savings reported by growers for savings in fuel ranged from 30 to 40% and savings in labor costs ranged from 15 to 25%. This was less than reported in agronomic and vegetable row crops, but still significant in terms of overall establishment costs.

As important as economic savings are to overall profitability, the soil health improvements that these 3 farmers plan on implementing on a regular basis could have even greater long term environmental and economic benefits for their respective farms and operations. All 3 collaborators plan on using cover crops to address their long term soil health limitations, and one farmer will include reduced tillage with that. This change in behavior is difficult to quantify, but since soil is one of the most limiting factors of crop production, while also being an extremely valuable farm resource, this behavior change should be seen as significant. Winter erosion will be reduced, soil health will be improved, labor costs will lowered, inputs in fertilizer may be reduced if active carbon can be improved.

Farmer Adoption

The three farmers that collaborated on the project had very different reactions to the work. Farmer 1, who was trying to adopt a sustainable, low chemical approach, was probably the most positively impacted because he learned a completely new approach to cultivation and also expanded his knowledge of strawberry culture tremendously. This farmer had only 2 years of experience, and no real knowledge of herbicides or cover cropping. Although he did not adopt the reduced tillage approach (primarily because his tractor is just barely large enough to deal with the 1 shank zone stripper) he has begun cover cropping on most of his farm. This farmer has also begun using herbicides more appropriately.

Farmer 2 reported that they saw value in planting a cover crop in that it helps keep his soil in place over the winter months, but he did not like the zone tillage and saw little positive from it on his farm. Farmer 2 is also frustrated with strawberry production in general but he did like the information he received from the Soil Health Test and hopefully will continue cover cropping as a way to increase his soil organic matter.

Farmer 3 was the most experienced farmer in the trial. This farmer is completely sold on reduced tillage and may use it more in the future – in strawberries and other crops. This farmer has purchased his own zone till equipment and is considering using it while renovating his strawberries. He sees zone tillage as a way to be more flexible when time is tight but he was also very interested in the results from the Cornell Soil Health Test. He did not know that active carbon rates could be negatively impacted by excessive tillage, so that was an important discovery. This farmer also understood the significance of a reduced cost associated with planting – even when yield may at time be negatively impacted. Still, this was the only farm that saw a significantly better yield in the reduced tillage when compared to the conventional tillage.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

Using reduced tillage strawberry systems deserves continued study. Results were not consistent across all farms primarily due to farmer experience both with strawberry production and zone tillage. The one experienced strawberry grower also had achieved success with using zone tillage with pumpkins so this farmer had confidence and extra desire to work hard to make the reduced tillage work in this trial.

The other 2 farmers that had less experience both with strawberry production and with zone tillage also had difficult sites. One farmer was installing into a killed sod and the other farmer had extremely sandy soil that proved to be very challenging in the hot dry growing season of 2010.

Because of these site specific problems, there is reason to believe that the results from Farms 1 and 2 could be very difficult if conducted again.

A longer term study that looks at cover cropping combined with zone tillage and other remediating management approaches might shed light on effectiveness of these practices over time. This same logic applies to evaluating root health in strawberries.

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.