No-till, No-herbicide Planting of Spring Vegetables Using Low Residue Winter Killed Cover Crops

2013 Annual Report for LNE11-312

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2011: $154,405.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Northeast
State: Maryland
Project Leader:
Dr. Ray Weil
University of Maryland
Natalie Lounsbury
University of New Hampshire

No-till, No-herbicide Planting of Spring Vegetables Using Low Residue Winter Killed Cover Crops


This year marked the conclusion of major experiment station research with the completion of four site years in Maryland that were the basis for an M.S. thesis project completed in October. Additionally, ten farmers planted cover crop trials in the fall of 2012 for vegetable planting in the spring of 2013. Data and feedback from research and on-farm trials has shown that no-till, no-herbicide planting of vegetables after a forage radish cover crop is effective under certain conditions. Importantly, these experiences have also shown that inadequate cover crop growth and poor soil structure lead to conditions that are not conducive to no-till spring planting. In 2013, we presented results at three farmer meetings in Maryland with over 350 attendees and presented a webinar that is available on the SARE and Penn State websites. To mark the shift from major research phase to outreach, we hired a ¾ time extension coordinator in November to lead outreach efforts in addition to continuing research. We held a field day in November with over 65 attendees at Clarksville, MD where we had multiple varieties of radish and other winterkilled cover crops. We will present at upcoming winter meetings in New York (2), New Jersey, and Maryland, and we have launched a website where we will continue to update information for farmers and educators through accessible blog posts and videos as well as fact sheets and research publications. In addition to cover crop trials in Maryland, research efforts for the coming year include replicated field trials in Maine and Massachusetts to determine if no-till planting spring vegetables is feasible in the New England climate as well as on-farm trials in Maryland and New Jersey.  

Objectives/Performance Targets

1,000 vegetable farmers managing 20,000 acres of land will learn about the concept of using low residue winterkilled cover crops to facilitate no-till spring planting through extension bulletins (May 2011 and 2012).

  • Extension bulletins through University of Maryland and Penn State in June, 2011.
  • Independently written article/synopsis of webinar we presented (2/4/13) in Country Folks (3/4/13).
  • We will publish extension bulletins/updates on research in University of Maryland and Penn State vegetable growers newsletters in 2014.

500 farmers will attend fall and spring field days and meetings where the new cover crop systems are featured (fall 2011 and 2012 and spring 2012 and 2013) and/or will visit our website and download information on equipment modifications, no-till planting and cover crops.

  • We have had two field days (spring 2012, fall 2013) with over 120 attendees. We plan to have at least one and possibly two field days in spring 2014.
  • We have presented at nine meetings with over 800 attendees to date, and we have plans to present at four winter meetings in early 2014.
  • Our website ( was established in December 2013, but so far we have no data on visits/downloads. We are currently updating/uploading material for farmers and educators. We have had a Picasa album where some of the photos have received close to 1000 views.

300 farmers will request additional information and/or seeds though our free seed outreach and will consider trying some version of this basic system. 

  • Despite many who have expressed interest and taken seed packets at events where we have had seeds available, fewer than 20 farmers have reached out to request additional information. We plan on sending information to all of the farmers whose contact information we have gotten at meetings/field days once we have a more complete website. It has been difficult to follow-up with and track farmers to whom we speak at meetings because we are not always able to get their contact information. We hope to have more success with this in the future by having an interactive website where comments/questions can be asked and displayed.  

150 farmers will plant 500 acres of spring crops by the radish/winterkilled cover crop no-till method.

  • See above comments. We have found that most vegetable farmers who attend our presentations/meetings are small scale (<5 acres). We plan to reach out to some larger-scale growers in the coming year. 

120 of these farmers will experience significant time-saving, financial benefits and soil quality benefits from using the system.

  • See above.

 Performance targets:

120 farmers growing 2,400 acres of spring-planted vegetables will use forage radish and/or other winterkilled cover crop no-till planting system for half their spring acreage. They will reduce fall/winter N leaching by 100lbs/acre (total reduction of 120,000 lbs of N) and will use 50 lbs/acre less N fertilizer (saving >$400/acre for organic growers) in spring (60,000 lbs less N fertilizer used per year). They will use no primary spring tillage and no burndown herbicide on these acres resulting in 3 tons less erosion per acre (36,000 tons less erosion) and 1,000 lbs less herbicide sprayed. On average, they will plant their crops 10 days earlier and harvest 7 days earlier than with their old system; they will save $100/acre seedbed preparation costs ($120,000 per year) and earn $500/acre ($600,000 total) more in crop sales per year. 

  • See above. We are in the process of quantifying N savings, and this is one of our primary goals for 2014. We are making an effort to demonstrate to farmers and extension educators how radish, in particular, can capture deep soil N and therefore keep N on the farm and not in waterways. One of our field day activities in Nov. 2013 involved farmers measuring deep soil nitrate, and this activity was effective at illustrating the potential for huge N losses without a cover crop. We also had a soil pit that showed how deep cover crop roots (esp. radish) can reach. One farmer wrote: “Thanks for the great field day last Thursday. I assume our local offices of extension have info to help us get Radishes into our cover crop rotations.  We’ll look forward to using your research to keep all that usable N up near the surface where plants can use it.”
  • Our data show that radish provides a dryer seedbed than higher residue cover crops, like oat, and that this can lead to earlier planting after radish and more flexibility in timing of field work.
  • Despite our optimism that earlier planting might lead to earlier harvest dates, we have observed that no-till planting may lead to delayed maturity of vegetable crops. This may be a disadvantage to no-till planting for some crops and in some areas if early spring vegetables have a short window to mature before hot weather and bolting.

12 vegetable farmers in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey will collaborate in this research by putting out replicated strips on their farms comparing forage radish no-till planting with their customary practice for early spring vegetable planting (August 2011-May 2012).

  • In 2012-13, 10 farmers in MD and PA had on-farm trials with radish and no-till/reduced till vegetable planting.
  • In 2013, five farmers put out cover crop trials.
  • In 2014, we plan on recruiting more farmers to participate in research and so far have three additional farmers ready to participate.
  • In August 2013, we planted replicated, on-farm and experiment station trials in ME and MA to determine the feasibility of no-till planting in a colder climate. If successful, we will recruit additional farmers in New England to try this system next year.
  • Partly inspired by our research, Leah Smith of PASA applied for and received a conservation district grant and worked with three farmers to establish cover crops in fall 2013. We will work with her in the spring to share one of our planters and follow-up on their experiences.  

6 of these farmers will experiment with other winterkilled cover crops or mixtures of forage radish and other cover crops (August 2012-May 2013).

  • So far, we have had only two farmers willing to experiment with other winterkilled cover crops and the results have not been promising. Radish establishes very quickly and easily and provides all the necessary aspects (low-residue, winterkills, suppresses weeds in spring, decomposes quickly and provides nutrients to cash crop) for no-till, no-herbicide planting. We are currently trialing phacelia as a potential non-brassica alternative to radish, but there has been much less interest in it because seeds are hard to find, expensive, and do not germinate as easily as radish.


This year marks the end of our primary research phase and the beginning of our more extensive outreach and secondary research. Field trials in Maryland concluded in June and samples and data were analyzed and included in an M.S. thesis in October. We hope to publish two open access journal articles about no-till planting early vegetables after winterkilled cover crops (radish and oat) and nutrient decomposition dynamics after winterkilled cover crops (radish and oat). Field trials were planted in August in Maine, Massachusetts and Maryland as well as on-farm experiments in New Jersey and Maryland. The field trials in New England are primarily planting date trials to determine the optimal time to plant forage radish to achieve adequate weed suppression in spring. To the best of our knowledge, no-till planting early vegetables has not been tried in New England and despite the cold climate that may severely limit soil warming, we will attempt no-till planting in spring 2014. A demonstration/research site was planted in Clarksville, MD in late August showcasing five varieties of radish, phacelia, and spatial arrangements of planting cover crops to simulate “strip-tillage.”

We launched a website ( in December, and are beginning to update/upload material including photos, videos, and data so we can reach a wider audience. In the original grant application, funds for a six month full-time extension position at the end of the project were included. We were authorized to change remaining funds to instead include a year-long ¾ time position for continued outreach and research. This position began in November, 2013.

The project is progressing mostly as anticipated, with the first years devoted primarily to research and this final year devoted to outreach. We had hoped to develop systems involving more than forage radish as the “low-residue winterkilled” cover crop, but we have found few other promising low-residue winterkilled cover crops. Few farmers have been interested in phacelia, the one other cover crop that has shown some promise to serve the same functional niche as forage radish. There was increased farmer and extension interest in phacelia after seeing demonstration plots in November, and we will continue to encourage trying other cover crops by providing farmers with seeds. Some farmers have expressed reticence to plant forage radish because they have many Brassicas in their rotations, though other farmers have said that they have not noticed increased pest/disease pressure when they have planted forage radish. With farmer encouragement, we may explore the possibility of organically-approved herbicides, which if effective could increase the number of cover crops that could be used to facilitate no-till early vegetable production in organic systems.  


Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

We have had positive feedback from our field day, webinar, and on-farm trials including:

“I am designing my planting schedule for next year and this gives great insights.” –Farmer

“Fantastic program!” –seed company owner

 “I will incorporate more targeting of cover crops into my farming” –Farmer

“Everything looks great.  Spinach did fantastic and there is very little weed pressure.  I have yet to run the wheel hoe through.  Beets did well too, I did run a wheel hoe through them.  You just need to go slow and occasionally pick up the dried out radish carcass that is in the way.  I did hand weed the beets but it was easy.  Took me 2 hours to do 4 250 ft rows.”- Farmer

“In no-till areas some problematic weeds, like pigweed, did not take root like it did in disturbed areas of the field. We were worried about following forage radish with a brassica crop, but did not notice any ill effects.”- Farmer

Crop farmers have been interested in nitrogen decomposition dynamics in spring as well as the data we have on sulfur availability following forage radish. Our field day activities to investigate and measure deep root growth and deep nitrogen capture were well-received by an audience that included many nutrient management specialists.


Dr. Masoud Hashemi
University of Massachusetts
201 Natural Resources Rd.
Amherst, MA 01003
Office Phone: 4135451843
David Liker
10151 Gorman Rd
Laurel, MD 20723
Office Phone: 3019088063
Tianna Dupont
Sustainable Agric. Extension Educator
Penn State University Cooperative Exensiont
Penn State University
North Hampton County Extension Office
Nazereth, PA 18064
Office Phone: 6107461970
Charlie White
Sustainable Agric. Extension Coordinator
Penn State Univ: Cooperative Extension
501 ASI Building Univ
University Park, PA 16802
Office Phone: 8148639922
Jack Gurley
Calvert's Gift Farm
16813 Yeoho Rd
Sparks, MD 21152
Office Phone: 4104726764