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Reduced Tillage in Vegetables

What is reduced tillage?

Reduced tillage practices minimize soil disturbance with targeted and appropriate tillage based on farm and field goals. Reduced tillage means a decreased reliance on inversion tillage. It means less intensity. Shallower depth. Less area disturbed, either in the bed, field or across the farm. It also means less frequent tillage, either in a succession planting or finding opportunities for land to rest for a year or more. Practices may be farm, rotation or crop-specific and often maintain the benefits of some tillage for controlling weeds, making a fine seed bed or incorporating amendments and residues.

About the project

Many vegetable growers rely on intensive tillage in their production system. Tillage can be a critical tool for controlling weeds, preparing seed beds, managing residues and incorporating nutrients. But intensive and repeated tillage can also be detrimental to long-term soil health. Reduced tillage practices, along with rotations, cover crops, and amendments, are a way to advance vegetable farms towards greater sustainability. How can reduced tillage practices help build better soils? How can they improve water use? How can they improve labor and fuel use efficiency? And how can they help ensure long-term productivity? This project works to help vegetable growers answer these questions and integrate practices that work on their own farm. We do field research, partner with farmers and extension educators, and aim to build a network of growers to share experience.

Where are we now? Reduced tillage in organic.

Our current work is focused on helping organic vegetable growers develop successful reduced tillage methods that contribute to managing weeds, cover crops, and soil fertility. We are working across a range of farm scales, from strip tillage systems to small-scale permanent beds. We are a collaboration among Cornell University in Ithaca and Long Island, the University of Maine, and Michigan State University, partnering with extension services and a team of experienced growers.

What are some organic reduced tillage practices?

Practices take many forms. They may be applied at the farm scale and be system-wide, or only fit in a part of the rotation. How they take shape varies based on farm size and field characteristics, available equipment and materials, skills and labor.

Yeomans NYBaruccontrolled trafficJohnsZilke strips

Here are some practices we are learning more about. Visit our Research Page for more details.

  • Continuous no-till – small scale, intensive methods with no tillage year after year
  • Semi-permanent/permanent beds – Tillage targeted to beds and field traffic restricted to between-bed areas, year after year (pathways managed with cultivation, mulch, or sod)
  • Shallow, non-inversion tillage (Ex. chisel plow, field cultivator)
  • Strip/zone tillage with tillage targeted to theplanting row (Ex. subsoiler, Yeomans plow, zone building)
  • Applying temporary pre-plant soil covers (Ex. tarping, solarizing)
  • Heavy mulching with organic materials (Ex. straw, hay, compost)
  • Relay planting a cover crop directly into a vegetable crop
  • Planting a vegetable crop directly into killed, low-residue cover crops
  • Planting a vegetable crop into killed, high-residue cover crops (Ex. cover crop mulching)