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Why Strip Tillage?

Why strip tillage?

Repeated, intensive tillage degrades soil structure and creates compacted layers than can restrict plant roots. Strip tillage targets soil disturbance to the planting zone and can help retain surface residue, preserve soil moisture, build soil structure, and reduce erosion.

This approach can give vegetables a good start by warming soils, forming a good seedbed, stimulating nitrogen release, incorporating fertilizer, and killing weeds. The depth and tools used depend on field conditions. Deep zone tillage rips a narrow channel below compacted zones to break up pans (plow, disc, rototiller) and loosen soil in a ~12” zone to prepare a seedbed, often in one pass.

Watch Anu Rangarajan (Project Director) explain strip tillage equipment:


Research Focus: Growing cover crops for strip tillage

Winter-hardy, high biomass cover crops can provide valuable soil building for the following cash crop and beyond. Spring growth can bring lots of organic matter and legume-fixed nitrogen ahead of summer vegetable plantings. When managed with RT, residues can protect soil from erosion, conserve moisture, and provide a weed-suppressive mulch. How do we select, plant and manage these cover crops to best limit weeds while also supplying nitrogen?

We are evaluating overwintering legume cover crops (hairy vetch, crimson clover, Austrian winter pea) grown alone or in mixture with cereal rye.

We also compare these cover crops under different management strategies: 1) mowed and left in place as a mulch, 2) chopped and removed for forage or mulch, and 3) repeatedly mowed and incorporated with conventional tillage.
Research locations: Freeville, NY, Riverhead, NY, and East Lansing, MI

Zone Tillage: A System that Goes Beyond the Tillage Tool

There are key decision points and specific tools to use to be successful, which we have outlined below.

August – Mid-September

Cover crop selection and planting – e.g. cover crop species (cereals, cereal + legume mixtures, or legumes), planting date and seeding rate, strip or mixed planting.

Maximizing cover crop growth in spring provides organic matter and legume-nitrogen available to the crop. Cover crops grown to anthesis can be killed mechanically without tillage.

Late May – Mid-June

Cover crop management – e.g. mowing and leaving in-place as mulch, repeated mowing (2-3x), cover crop removal (cut and carry), tool used for mechanical termination


Mid-June – Early July

Tillage and cash crop planting – e.g. intensity of tillage, row cleaners, planter


July to August

Cultivation – e.g. tool types (high or low residue), timing and frequency


 Considerations for trialing zone-till practices on the farm:

  • Plan for large seeded vegetable crops (e.g. sweet corn, beans) and/or transplants (e.g. brassicas, cucurbits) because they don’t require a fine seed bed.
  • Try cucurbits for a single-row zone-till system after winter hardy cover crops. Wider between-row spacing makes for less zones and edge to manage. There is also room to mow cover crops repeatedly during early crop growth if regrowth is a problem.
  • When using winter rye or mixtures dominated by cereal grains, follow with low nitrogen demanding crops (e.g. beans). Leaving the strips in the cover crop (blocking off planter) can help reduce residue in the planting row.
  • Use cover crop mixtures dominated by legumes and a lower cereal seeding rate for less residue. They are easier to plant into and cultivate without highly specialized tools.

Try an alternative management with cereal-legume mixes for more biomass with less residue. Mow several times over spring, then subsoil or zonebuild in the planting zone in combination with shallow surface tillage (disc or rototiller). 

What are we learning?

Hear details about strip tillage tools and cover crop practices by listening to the 2017 RT Webinar Series
Read more on the successes and challenges with managing cover crop-based mulches in the Summer 2017 Small Farm Quarterly.

Ryan Maher

Ryan Maher

Ryan began with the SFP in the summer of 2013 and focuses on research and extension in soil health practices for vegetables. He is a Baltimore native with family and educational ties to CNY. After graduating from SUNY-ESF in 2003 he spent two summers training on diversified vegetable farms, first in SW Oregon and then in the Boston metro area. In 2007, he graduated from Iowa State with an MS in Sustainable Agriculture focusing on soils in native grassland restorations. He spent five years with the USDA-ARS in St. Paul MN, coordinating research on nutrient cycling in perennial forage crops. Ryan, his wife Jackie, and daughters Gia and Olive are happy to settle in CNY and enjoy the food, farms, forested hills, and water of the Finger Lakes region.
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1 Comment

  1. Avatar Lloyd Bronson on September 18, 2019 at 5:20 pm

    I am glad that your article mentions that strip-tillage offers vegetables a good start by warming the soil it is planted in. My older brother works at the old family ranch and is looking for ways to increase the growth of the produce. I’ll send your article to him in order to assist him in the matter!

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