Improving Soil Health Through Cover Crop Based No-Till Organic Vegetable Production

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2013: $9,997.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Grant Recipient: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Erin Silva
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Annual Reports


  • Vegetables: beans, peppers


  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning
  • Natural Resources/Environment: soil stabilization
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, holistic management, organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: organic matter


    Cover crop-based reduced tillage (CCBRT) techniques have demonstrated positive impacts in organic row crop systems, contributing to the conservation and improvement of soil resources and the facilitation of weed management of these systems.  This technique, which uses cover crop residues as a mulch to suppress weeds, has shown more variable success in organic vegetable production systems, with data lacking to demonstrate its potential adaptation for small-scale operations.  This experiment was designed to evaluate the adaptability of CCBRT for small-scale organic vegetable production in the upper Midwestern United States, specifically evaluating weed suppression, labor inputs, and yields of vegetable crops.  Cereal rye (Secale cereale), winter wheat (Triticum aestivum), and hairy vetch (Vicia villosa) were fall-sown in 2012 and 2013 in a strip-plot design, including a control treatment with no cover crop. During the following spring, cover crop plots were strip-tilled in mid-April to establish a planting zone, with cover crops terminated at anthesis with a sickle-bar mower in late May. Bell peppers (Capsicum annuum var. ‘Revolution’), snap beans (Phaseolus vulgaris var. ‘Tavera’), and potatoes (Solanum tuberosum var. ‘Red La Soda’) were hand-planted either as transplants or seed in each treatment immediately following cover crop termination.  During each summer growing season, weeds were removed by hand approximately every 10 to 14 days as needed for management, with management times recorded for each treatment.  Vegetable crop yields and quality were measured at harvest.  Cereal rye produced greater biomass at the time of termination as compared to other cover crop treatments.  Greater numbers of weeds were counted in the wheat treatment as compared to the cereal rye, increasing the in-season labor required for weed management.  Bean yields were decreased in the all CCBRT treatments compared to control treatments in both years of the study.  Pepper yields did not differ in CCBRT treatments as compared to the control in both 2012 and 2013, although the CCBRT treatments did yield a lower harvestable weight of peppers than the straw mulch plots.  Potato tuber yields were not different in the CCBRT treatments as compared to the control in 2012, but were lower in 2013.  This data indicates that, if the CCBRT system is to have potential application for the production of vegetable crops in small-scale vegetable production, further optimization of the system must be achieved to ensure consistent and adequate weed suppression while maintaining crop yield and quality.

    Project objectives:

    The objectives of this study were: 1) to compare the effectiveness of terminated cover crop mulch treatments in weed suppression throughout the cash-crop production season; 2) to assess differences in the labor efficiency of weed management using cover crop treatments as compared to typical small-scale organic vegetable production systems; and 3) to determine the impacts of the cover crop-based reduced tillage system on vegetable yields and quality.  Distinct outputs resulting from this project included a peer reviewed journal article, farmer-focused fact sheets, archived webinars, and presentations at farmer conferences and field days.  Further, the results of the research were leveraged to obtain larger federal funds through the USDA-Organic Research and Education Initiative program. 

    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.