Cornell CALS - College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Reduced Tillage in Vegetables

Project Lead: Ryan Maher, Anu Rangarajan

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Pre-plant tarps can be an alternative to tillage for weed control. (Freeville, NY)
Pre-plant tarps can be an alternative to tillage for weed control. (Freeville, NY)

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.

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.

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 wide range of farm scales, from strip tillage systems to small-scale permanent beds.

This project works to help vegetable growers answer the following questions:

  • How can reduced tillage practices reduce weeds?
  • How can reduced tillage practices help build better soils?
  • How can they improve water use?
  • How can they improve labor and fuel use efficiency?
  • How can they help ensure long-term productivity?

We do field research, partner with farmers and extension educators, and aim to build a network of growers to share their experience, with the ultimate goal of helping farmers find practices that work on their own farm.

News and Updates

Manage Weeds With Tarping

By Ryan Maher | July 15, 2019

Tarping has become a popular practice for small-scale organic farms to manage weeds. Typically, beds are tilled and prepared for planting and then covered using a durable, black plastic tarp.…

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Why Strip Tillage?

By Ryan Maher | July 15, 2019

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…

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Why permanent beds?

By Ryan Maher | July 15, 2019

Permanent beds can help improve soil health on the farm-scale. Rather than plow and harrow by the field, fields are divided into a set of beds. Field traffic (tractor or…

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About Reduced Tillage in Vegetables

Tarps on Permanent Beds

Reduced tillage practices minimize soil disturbance with targeted and appropriate soil disturbance based on farm goals. Reduced tillage means a decreased reliance on inversion tillage. It means less intensity, shallower depth, and less area disturbed, either in the bed, field or across the farm. It can also mean less frequent tillage, like finding opportunities in a rotation for land to rest for a year or more.

Practices take many forms. They may be system-wide, applied across the whole farm, or only fit in a part of the rotation for specific crops. They often maintain the benefits of some tillage for managing weeds, making a better seed bed or incorporating residues.  How they take shape on a farm can depend on farm size and soil characteristics, access to equipment or materials, farm skill sets, and labor availability.

Reduced Tillage in Organic Farms

Many organically-managed farms rely on intensive tillage. It can be a critical tool for controlling weeds, managing residues and killing cover crops. But intensive and repeated tillage is also be detrimental to long-term soil health. Reduced tillage practices, combined with crop rotations, cover crops, and soil amendments, can move vegetable farms towards greater sustainability. What practices can help organic growers build better soils? Improve labor and fuel use efficiency? And ensure long-term profitability?

Our current work is focused on developing successful organic reduced tillage methods to manage weeds, integrate cover crops, and build soil productivity. We are working across scales, from strip tillage systems to permanent beds and tarping.

Project Partners

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.

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About 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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