Optimizing Strawberry Production with a Reduced Tillage System

Project Overview

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


  • Fruits: berries (strawberries)


  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, display, extension, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, workshop
  • Energy: energy use
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns
  • Natural Resources/Environment: soil stabilization
  • Pest Management: chemical control, competition, mulches - killed, physical control, mulching - vegetative
  • Production Systems: holistic management, transitioning to organic
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil analysis, nutrient mineralization, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    This project, ‘Optimizing Strawberry Production with a Reduced Tillage System’, seeks to address weed control during the establishment year in perennial matted row strawberries while also reducing cultivation and herbicide inputs and improving soil health. The Cornell Cooperative Extension Capital District Vegetable and Small Fruit Program will use a two row Unverferth Ripper/Stripper allowing us to work with 3 different farmers with different soil types including Elnora loamy fine sand, Valois gravelly loam and Churchville silty clay loam. Strawberry weed control, especially in the establishment year, remains a formidable barrier to achieving optimal productivity. This project examines the effectiveness of growing strawberries in a zone-till system vs. a no-till system vs. a conventionally prepared transplant bed. An Unverferth ripper/stripper – a modified zone builder – will help us accomplish tillage reduction. We will evaluate weed density and types of weeds, yield, quality of yield, cost of production, and plant nutritional status in all three treatments. Soil structure can be improved in minimum till production systems by maintaining large soil aggregates; the potential for soil erosion following planting will be drastically reduced; overall plant nutrition and health will be improved and most importantly, farmers will adopt this system because it requires less work than traditional weed control methods while yielding better results. Outreach efforts include newsletters, winter grower meetings, summer field meetings and posters that can be displayed at a variety of venues. Additionally, I will be co-teaching a New Farmer course in Jan-Feb 2011 and we will be discussing reduced tillage with the class participants in detail.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The project ‘Optimizing Strawberry Production with a Reduced Tillage System’, seeks to demonstrate that growing matted-row, June-bearing strawberries using a reduced tillage approach will 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 reduced-till system uses a sub-soiler to loosen soil deeply followed by coulters and a rolling basket that prepare a 6-10” wide seedbed. This technique allows the longer rooted strawberry plant to be correctly planted while still having minimum soil disturbance between the rows. By only tilling this narrow area, the chance of new weed seeds being brought to the surface for germination is reduced. Because the strawberry plants will get off to a good start, they should out-compete weed competitors in the tilled zone. The addition of the shank allows for improved water drainage therefore reducing disease pressure from soil borne diseases like Phytophthora fruit rot. The use of reduced tillage tools usually requires a single trip across a field for it to be fitted for planting – an important advantage that translates into less labor, reduced fuel consumption and a decreased risk of soil compaction.

    Reduced soil erosion due to reduced tillage helps keep fertilizers and pesticides in the field where they can be utilized rather than ending up in surface or ground water. Soil erosion in a matted row system is only a concern during the establishment year and immediately after renovation. Soil structure can be improved in minimum till production systems by maintaining large soil aggregates which allow better water infiltration, improved root growth, oxygen exchange and improved soil microbial health. There is also potential for the Zone Builder to be used during the renovation of established beds as well, thereby increasing the utilization of the machine.

    The time and production costs saved using the reduced till system, along with the inherent advantages of planting into a killed cover crop will result in much greater adoption of reduced till in strawberry plantings. The fact that this implement can be used for many other crops on a diversified vegetable farm makes it even more attractive to growers.

    Project Methods for ‘Optimizing Strawberry Production with a Reduced Tillage System’:

    There will be three treatments in this study; conventional tillage, no-till and zone tillage. This will be done with 3 different farmers with different soil types including Elnora loamy fine sand, Valois gravelly loam and Churchville silty clay loam.

    1. Normal field prep done by farmer including fall tillage and rye cover crop planted in at the rate of 80#/acre along a 20’ section of row (along back of field), for 24 rows.
    2. Plants would be planted in spring 2010.
    3. The first treatment would be the control, the cover crop is completely incorporated prior to planting and the entire 8 rows are fitted traditionally.
    4. In the second set of 8 rows, treatment 2, berry plants will be planted directly into the cover crop using transplanting equipment slightly modified for no-till.
    5. For the third set of 8 rows, treatment 3, the Unverferth ripper/stripper – modified for a 1 row system, will create a 6” tilled zone in the cover crop and the berries will be planted in that zone.
    6. In both treatment 1 and 2, rye would be mowed later and higher to allow weed seeds to germinate and then would be killed chemically or by crimping. Planting would occur after cover crop kill.

    A soil health evaluation using the Cornell Soil Health Assessment protocols will be made on the research plot at each of the three farm partners. This evaluation will supply growers and researchers with a comprehensive picture of the physical, biological and chemical status of their soil. Due to the 18 month nature of this project, a post-test will not be conducted as there is little expectation for change in just 2 growing seasons. The importance of this assessment is to help the farmer better understand the need for a minimal tillage approach on that farm field and supply researchers with additional data that can be used to explain outcomes. A soil nutrient analysis will be made comparing cover cropped soil to soil with no cover crop.
    Weed populations will be monitored by sampling 3 randomly selected replications within the berry row and 3 randomly selected replications between the berry rows for each of the three treatments. This weed evaluation will take place 1 month post planting and then in early September. The following spring weed data will be collected prior to harvest.

    Yield data will be collected from three randomly selected areas within each treatment. Berry quality will also be assessed for size and evidence of insect or disease pests. Due to the size of the collaborating farms and the field layout of this experiment, it is unlikely that we will be comparing the same cultivars from field to field, or even from treatment to treatment. We will take note of the varieties involved as their characteristics may help us explain the yield data at the end of the project.

    Foliar leaf analysis will be conducted following the 1st harvest in each treatment. Fields will be split into no-till, reduced till and conventional till. Input costs will be monitored between the three treatments to determine differences in production costs.
    Reduced tillage systems promise savings of production costs, improved soil tilth, reduced soil erosion and compaction. A 20% savings in input costs, by 20% of current strawberry growers could mean input savings in the millions of dollars. Reducing the amount of herbicide and the amount of cultivation will lead to even more significant environmental benefits. Outcomes from this grant proposal will help growers compare costs and benefits of reduced till to input intensive systems like plasticulture.

    The plan for disseminating results from the proposed project:

    The primary audience will be diversified fresh market farmers in the northeast. I am a contributor to several monthly newsletters including the NY Berry News, an electronic newsletter with 745 subscriptions. I will write a newsletter article and submit this to NOFA-NY, Cornell Small Farms program, and to our local CCE newsletter which goes to vegetable and berry growers in 2 major growing regions in NY. I look forward to using the information gathered during this project as culminating information to provide growers with an accurate picture of the benefits and risks of reduced and no-till approaches with strawberries.

    Two field meetings are planned during the course of the study. I plan on presenting the information at the Empire EXPO and the Capital District winter meeting. I would also offer the topic to conference planners with NOFA-NY, the New England Vegetable and Berry Conference, the Long Island Ag Forum and the Mid-Atlantic conference.

    A poster will be created and displayed at grower meetings. A short series of webinars addressing reduced tillage systems for a number of different crops including this strawberry work will be organized and conducted. This technology may help us reach a segment of berry growers that are unable to attend field meetings or conferences. During fall 2009 and winter 2010 I have been coordinating a series of webinars for berry growers that have been very successful and I can use that experience to create an effective “digital classroom experience” for farmers throughout the northeast.

    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.