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

2008 Annual 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

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


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. The specific objectives of the project are

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

Through applied on-farm and on-station research, we continue to address the pressing soil/crop management issues inherent in applying reduced tillage for vegetables systems in the Northeast. We have focused on designing/fabricating new equipment and the adjustment of the already existing equipment to address the concerns of growers on reduced tillage in the region. 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.

Objectives/Performance Targets

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.


To achieve the milestones of this project, we have continued to reach several growers in the region through farm visits, conferences, field meetings and other outreach activities. We reached 250+ growers during 2008. The RT project has also continued to sponsor and co-sponsor on-farm and on-station trials during 2008. The field meetings held during the year focused on these different trials. During our field meetings, challenges associated with RT in vegetables were discussed and reduced tillage equipment were demonstrated to different growers. Growers were also able to observe the on-farm trials that were conducted during the season. As a part of our outreach efforts, our team shared a fact sheet on Zone Tillage (field meetings and winter conferences) to help growers throughout the region understand the basics of this reduced tillage method.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Reduced tillage events 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.

Of the 20 evaluations returned (general for the Soil Health/Reduced Tillage session) 14 people said they’d apply something new they learned in the session, while 18 people said they understood one or more of the subjects presented better. All reported following at least one of the good soil management practices described. Comments on the evaluations: “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.”

– 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 13 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, Lyn Fish. About 13 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.


Evaluating controlled release and conventional nitrogen fertilizer programs under reduced and conventional tillage systems.

Leader: Sandy Menasha, CCE Suffolk County
Location: Long Island Horticulture Research and Extension Center.

This 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. Measurements on plant yield, crop quality, and percent tissue N content were collected to evaluate the different tillage systems under the different nitrogen programs.

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.

Corn was planted on July 2. 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. Treatments were as follows:

• Reduced Tillage

o 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) fertilizer, by injection with the Unverferth at a rate of 80 lbs of N/A to a depth of about 4”.

o Conventional fertilizer program: 40 lb N/A applied a planting and sidedressed with 80 lbs N/A (34-0-0).

• Conventional tillage

o Controlled release N 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.

o Conventional fertilizer program: 40 lb N/A applied a planting and sidedressed with 80 lbs N/A (34-0-0).

Conventional-till plots were harvested on Sept. 11 and reduced-till plots were harvested on Sept. 15. Measures on yield and ear quality were recorded and analyzed.

Weeds were managed primarily with herbicides. 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 .75 fl oz/A applied with mentholated seed oil (Succeed) at 1% v/v and 8.5 lbs ammonium sulfate per 1000 gallons. Insects were managed according to Cornell Guidelines.


Nitrogen fertilizer source did not have a significant effect on marketable yield or ear quality. However, CT plots produced significantly greater marketable yields than RT plots 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. The lower yields obtained from reduced tillage plots may be due to poor seed bed formation with the Unverferth Zone Builder resulting in poor seed to soil contact and thus a lower plant population per acre. The delay in maturity in RT plots may be a result of lower soil temperatures in RT vs. CT plots.

Pumpkin Production in RT at Harbes Family Farm (Mattituck NY)

Contact: Sandy Menasha, CCE Suffolk County
The purpose of the study was to evaluate pumpkin production in reduced tillage systems compared to conventional tillage systems. Rye planted the previous fall was rolled and killed with Round-up to establish the mulch for weed control in the reduced tillage system. An Unverferth Zone Builder was used to cut and fertilize reduced tillage zones in the field. Pumpkin was seeded on June 12 in rows 6 ft apart. A conventionally tilled field was prepared by plowing and then disking. Pumpkin was seeded on June 10 in rows 6 ft apart.

Weeds were controlled primarily with herbicides in the reduced tillage systems with two applications of Roundup applied after the rye was rolled and after the zones were built before crop emergence. Strategy and Sandea 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. This could be due in part to a less desirable seed bed in the reduced tillage system as opposed to the conventionally tilled field. More skips in the planted row led to an increased population of weeds that were difficult for the grower to control. 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. The results obtained from this demonstration trial did not discourage the grower. The benefits from improved soil quality and possibly reduced disease potential with reduced tillage systems will keep the grower interested in the concept. Weed control and improved plant stands with the reduced tillage systems need to be improved.

The Effect of Plastic vs. Floating Rowcovers on Early Sweet Corn Production in Conventional and Reduced Tillage Systems

Leader: Charles Bornt, Capital District Vegetable Program

Location: Valatie Research Farm, Columbia County
Many growers continue to use clear plastic and with conventional tillage to produce the first sweet corn of the season. However, we have shown in past trials that using zone tillage with floating row covers can produce corn within several days of plastic with less tillage and labor. One of the drawbacks of using plastic is all that is needed is several bright, sunny days with temperatures in the upper 70’s and the plastic needs to be removed from the young corn in order to avoid yield damaging injury. Floating row covers allow the covers to remain on right up until tassel emergence without reaching temperatures that would cause damage to yields. This trial was established to determine if the combination of floating rowcovers and zone tillage could produce harvest windows and yields similar or better then conventionally tilled plastic sweet corn. The treatments included:

• Conventional tilled with plastic cover
• Conventional tilled with row cover
• Zone tillage with Unverferth Ripper Stripper with row cover.

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 rowcover and zone built rowcover treatments were planted with the same 2 row Pequea planter, but the planter units were moved to 30” centers. Rowcovers were applied to these two treatments the same day. The planter was calibrated to deliver 280 lbs per acre of 16-16-16 granular fertilizer to all treatments. All plots received an 40 lbs additional nitrogen sidedress (32% liquid nitrogen dribbled along side each row) immediately after covers were removed. 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.

The Effect of Slow Release Liquid Nitrogen vs. Conventional Liquid Nitrogen Deep Placed in the Zone on Sweet Corn

Leader: Charles Bornt, Capital District Vegetable Program

Location: Valatie Research Farm, Columbia County

Growers have learned that they can save fuel and labor by using reduced tillage systems. Fertilizer requirements and application techniques are still concerns growers have. Traditionally sweet corn growers put 40% of the nitrogen needs of the crop through the planter at the time of planting. The rest is sidedressed usually when the corn is 12” tall or just before they can no longer get through the crop with their equipment without injuring it. Recently, we learned that 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 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

• 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.

Four rows of 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.

Reduced Till Dry Bean Trial at Jeffres Farm, Wyoming NY

Leader: Carol MacNeil

The purpose of this trial was to compare the yield and maturity of beans grown under zone tillage vs conventional tillage. Cranberry beans were planted in 30” rows in both the zone till and conventional fields. The previous crop was grain corn in the conventional field. Conventional tillage was moldboard plowing and discing. Reduced tillage included 8” deep ripping and preparation of the planting strip with a Brillion ripper stripper. Both fields were cultivated. They were not irrigated. Tom Jeffres harvested in mid-October with conventional bean equipment.

While plant stand 26 days-post planting was similar in the conventional and zone tilled field there was more fresh weight in the zone tilled plants. Compaction was less at the 6 – 12” depth and the 12-18” depth for zone tillage. In addition, the compaction was less at 3” to the side of the zone tilled row in 2 out of 3 replications. This indicates that the planter and ripper didn’t line up exactly. Having the rip to the side of the planting row may or may not affect crop growth, depending on soil moisture, crop vigor, and the distance from the crop row. 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 – 6” of soil in the conventional field, while larger roots extended up to a foot deep in the zone tilled field.

Little to no white mold was noted in any of the plots. The beans were equally physiologically mature but the pods were not dry. There was no difference in yield, harvest index (seed yield to total plant dry weight) or seed size between the treatments. Tom Jeffres is likely to repeat the test although he is quite convinced that zone tillage is the way to go with field crops and processing vegetables. The major benefit he sees is the much reduced labor need/time to prepare a field for planting in the spring, as well as the ability to get into fields to harvest where the entire field has not been tilled.

Reduced Till Snap Bean Trial at Jeffres Farm

Contact: Carol MacNeil, CCE Lake Plains Vegetable Team

The purpose of this trial was to compare the yield and maturity of beans grown under zone tillage vs conventional tillage. The snap bean variety Pix was planted in zone till and conventional fields. Conventional tillage was moldboard plowing and discing. Reduced tillage included 8” deep ripping and preparation of the planting strip with a Brillion ripper stripper. A Flexicoil packer was also used in the zone tilled snap bean field. Reflex herbicide was applied to the conventional snap beans while the zone till snap beans were cultivated.
Results: Although the plant stand was nearly the same, the fresh weight and dry weight of the plants in the conventional field, and later the yield, were higher than in the zone till. Slow early growth was observed in 2007 in both the dry bean zone till vs conventional trials on this farm. A delay in maturity was observed as the zone till dry beans approached harvest, though by the time of harvest they had caught up. Snap beans have no time to catch up. We are checking into possible carryover of corn herbicides as a cause.

There were reports from one NYS processor that harvesting snap beans from reduced tilled fields resulted in more trash in the plant, though another processor did not have that experience. The acreage of processing snap beans is very small compared to the total acreage. One of the growers for the processor who hasn’t had a problem with trash planted his snap beans on a field that was corn harvested for silage the previous year. A Flexicoil packer was run over the field after snap bean planting. Another grower planted reduced till snap beans on a field that had been soybeans the previous year.
Tom Jeffres is likely to repeat the test. He has the least experience with processing snap beans (1 year) and will likely proceed slowly because of reduced yield in the zone till field in 2008.

Reduced Till Squash Trial at Freatman Farms, Lockport NY

Contact: Carol MacNeil, CCE Lakes Plains Vegetable Program

The purpose of this trial was to compare the yield of butternut squash grown under zone tillage vs conventional tillage. A field was split between conventional tillage and zone tillage. It was a rough, new field, however, so the entire field had been fall plowed, making it not strictly zone tillage. The conventional side was disced and fitted this spring. The zone till side was ripped 8 – 10” deep and 8” wide on 30” centers with an Unverferth ripper stripper. Butternut squash was planted in both tillage treatments, with 450 lbs/acre of 10-20-20 banded on 30” centers. They later cultivated both tillage treatments and side-dressed 250 lbs/acre of 30-0-0.

Results: Plant emergence and early growth were slow in both tillage treatments. There were early and late emerging plants in both. Temperatures were cooler and wetter than normal in late June and the first week in July. Plant stand was less than desired in both treatments.

Compaction was greater in the conventional treatment, especially at the 6 – 12” depth. Compaction was above the 300 psi (lbs/sq. in.) threshold where root growth and water movement is severely restricted at the 6 – 12” depth in the conventional treatment, and in both treatments at the 12 – 18” depth. The number of marketable fruit and the fruit weight at harvest were greater for the zone till plots. The plots were each taken from just two rows of squash, however, and because of the variability in the field and poor, variable plant emergence this trial should be repeated before conclusions are drawn. The grower was not able to compare the yields of the two treatments due to the harvest method used. The grower is convinced that zone till field corn and later planted sweet corn will work and that has become his standard practice. Zone tillage for vine crops was new this year. He was very encouraged by the results but wants to do this trial again, as well as to plant other vine crops again under zone tillage to see how they perform.

Long term RT systems trial established in 2004 (H.C. Thompson Vegetable Research Farm, Freeville, NY)

The long-term reduced tillage field was established in 2004 in Freeville, NY comparing zone-till, deep zone till and plow-till evaluated in response to three weed control regimes (conventional, 1/3 rate in-row + cultivation and cultivation only). This year, acorn squash and sweet corn were grown in these plots. Sweet corn had 120 lb N/A placed either deep or shallow in the tillage systems.


While there was no significant tillage effect on the yield of sweet corn, the effects of weed control and sweet corn varieties were statistically significant. The cultivation only plots have a significant weed pressure after several years. There were no yield differences between conventional fertilizer applications and deep placed N. In the case of acorn squash, there was no difference by tillage system or weed control method.

RT Systems for Organic Vegetable Production at Freeville Organic Research Farm, NY
Cabbage and peppers were grown in RT systems for a third year at Freeville, NY. The treatments tested were:

– Conventional vs. Strip tillage (14 inch deep ripping under 8 inch disturbed surface area)
– Three cover crop/mulch combinations (Rye/vetch mow killed, oat/pea winter killed, oat/pea winter killed plus straw)
– Two levels of soil disturbance from weed management (High and Low)


– Results from the third year of trials showed that the cover crop treatments applied did affect plant growth, weed pressure and yield. Plant growth in rye vetch plots were significantly lower resulting in lower total yields than oat/pea. The winter killed cover plus straw had the lowest weed pressure. A significant difference in early season weeds was observed for these plots.

– There were fewer weeds in the higher soil disturbance plots which received two cultivations. Targeted hand weeding and low soil disturbance were not effective in a wet season.

– Cabbage yields were declining in the reduced tillage system, after three years. The pepper yields in year two were equivalent between the two systems.

RT Systems for Beet and Carrot Production at H.C. Thompson Vegetable Research Farm, NY

The long-term research field was established in 2006 on a silt loam soil to compare zone-till, deep zone till and plow-till and two weed control regimes (conventional, 1/3 rate in-row + cultivation). Beets and carrots were seeded into this plot in 2008. 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 yields with the zone tillage compared to the deep zone and conventional tilled plots. However, there was still significantly more culled roots in the deep zone till treatments, due to forking and crooks. In 2009, we will try a different type of point on the deep till shank, to try and improve the shatter of the soil for root crops.


Charles Mohler

Senior research scientist
Cornell University Crops and Soil Sciences Dept
907 Bradfield Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
Mark Hutton

Assistant Professor
University of Maine
Donn Branton

Branton Farms
8618 Buckley Rd
Leroy, NY 14482
George Ayres

FreshAyr Farm
4920 Herendeen Rd
Shortsville, NY 14548
John Idowu

Research Associate
Cornell University
1015 Bradfield Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
Office Phone: 6072551706
Website: www.hort.cornell.edu/reducedtillage
Harold VanEs

Cornell University Crops and Soil Sciences Dept
1005 Bradfield Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
Eric and Anne Nordell

Beech Grove Farm
Carol MacNeil

Senior Extension Educator
Cornell Cooperative Extension
480 N. Main Street
Canandaigua, NY
Office Phone: 5853943977
Steve Groff

Cedar Meadow Farm
Charles Bornt

Extension Educator
Cornell Cooperative Extension
61 State Street
Troy, NY 12180