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Searching for Successful No-till Crop Sequences

Illuminating past research and preliminary results from a new experiment 

By Uriel D. Menalled and Matthew R. Ryan from the Cornell Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab

Each year, millions of acres are tilled worldwide to control weeds, incorporate fertilizer, and prepare soil for crop seeding. Tillage can be damaging to the environment because it facilitates soil erosion [1] and greenhouse gas emissions [2]. Many of the environmental issues associated with tillage can be addressed through no-till crop production. 

Reducing tillage can promote soil health by protecting soil structure [3,4], organic matter [5], and soil fauna [3,4,6]. No-till crop production can also use up to three times less fuel than tillage-based farming [7]. The reduced fuel use and improved soil health from no-till crop production can help farmers lower their operating costs and increase their resilience to extreme weather.

In organic systems, many farmers rely on tillage to control weeds, which are often a major problem. In fact, surveys conducted within the past decade report that organic farmers in the United States and Europe consider weed control to be a top production constraint and the primary barrier to adopting no-till [8–10]. Since 2020, the Hudson Valley Farm Hub and the Cornell Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab have been working to develop strategies for organic no-till farming. The two groups are collaborating on “The New Crops for Organic No-till experiment,” a three year research trial that is being conducted at both the Hudson Valley Farm Hub and Cornell University’s Musgrave Research Farm in Aurora, NY. 

Whereas conventional no-till production relies on herbicides, we are using mulch from cover crops that are mechanically terminated with a roller-crimper to suppress weeds (Figure 1). 

Mulch from cover crops can suppress weeds by acting as a physical barrier [11], changing nutrient availability [12–14], and modifying the soil microenvironment [15,16]. To date, Cornell’s Sustainable Cropping System Lab has seen consistent success with no-till planting organic soybean into rolled-crimped cereal rye (Figure 1) [12,17]. The Farm Hub has also been exploring organic no-till vegetable and field crop production [18,19].

Footage of 2020-2021 summer cash crop trial taken at Musgrave Research Farm in Aurora, NY.

Key findings 

One key finding in our research is that compatible cover crop and cash crop sequences are essential for productive organic no-till systems.

No-till planting cash crops into rolled crimped cover crops. Both roller crimping and seeding occur in one pass for a time efficient operation. Photo courtesy of Uriel D. Menalled.

Although we have been successful with organic no-till soybean, tillage is still used for other crops in the rotation. Thus, we are evaluating different cover crop and cash crop combinations to develop crop sequences that allow for extended periods of organic no-till crop production. With longer intervals between tillage, farmers will benefit from improved soil health and other ecosystem services that come from reducing soil disturbance.

To test the potential of different cover crop and cash crop combinations for organic no-till crop production in the Northeast, we are conducting a field experiment that evaluates cover crop growth, cash crop establishment, weed suppression, and cash crop yield. The experiment consists of two trials: a winter cash crops trial (Trial 1) and a summer cash crop trial (Trial 2).

 Across both trials a total of 32 no-till and 8 tilled cash crop sequences are evaluated (Table 1)

By comparing the no-till systems to the tilled control, we can describe the viability of each no-till crop sequence.

Trial 1 – Winter cash crops
Summer Cover Crops
Winter Cash Crops
Sorghum sudangrass (SS)
Winter Wheat
Sunn hemp (SH)
Cereal Rye
SS x SH
Winter pea
Buckwheat
Canola
Tillage control
Trial 2 – Summer cash crops
Winter Cover Crops
Summer Cash Crops
Hairy vetch (HV)
Soybean
Cereal rye (CR)
Dry bean
HV x CR
Sweet corn
Canola
Sunflower
Tillage control

Crops used for the ‘New Crops for Organic No-till’ experiment. Within each trial, all combinations of cover crops and cash crops are replicated in four blocks at each site for 40 treatments (5 cover crops × 4 cash crops × 2 trials). 

Preliminary data from “The New Crops for Organic No-till experiment” indicates that our cover crop treatments had a substantial effect on weed suppression and cash crop yields. In the winter cash crop trial, weed biomass ranged from 3,567 lbs/acre in the winter pea that was no-till planted into a sorghum sudangrass cover crop to 143 lbs/acre in the cereal rye that was no-till planted into a sunn hemp cover crop (Table 2). Our treatments also resulted in a wide range of weed biomass in the summer cash crops, ranging from 2,794 lbs/acre to 384 lbs/acre  in the dry bean planted into the tilled control and hairy vetch x cereal rye mulch, respectively (Table 2). Across both winter and summer trials, in all cash crops, weed biomass was lower or comparable to the tilled control in at least one of the cover crop treatments. 

A look at cash crop yields also suggests that crop productivity in organic no-till can be equal to or superior to tilled systems (Table 3). Like weed suppression, we observed a tremendous range in cash crop yield across treatments in both winter and summer trials. Broadly, the legume mulches tended to support relatively high yields in all cash crops (Table 3; Figure 2). In the high-yielding cover crop treatments, the no-till planted cash crops had equal or superior yields than the tilled control.

Organic sunflower cv. ‘Badger DMR’ no-till planted into hairy vetch and cereal rye mulches at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub. The sunflower was planted at the same seeding rate (30,000 seeds/ac) and date (June 8th, 2021) into the two cover crop treatments. The sunflower was not fertilized in both treatments and did not receive supplemental weed management. Photo courtesy of Uriel D. Menalled.

Our preliminary weed biomass and crop yield results are exciting because they suggest that farmers can successfully no-till plant a variety of cash crops in an organic no-till production system.

We are repeating the experiment in 2022 at both sites to assess consistency across different weather conditions. We will also be evaluating yield in subplots with supplemental fertility and weeding to develop management recommendations for our crop sequences as well as monitoring herbivory and disease across treatments to characterize insect pest and pathogen pressure in the no-till treatments. 

Findings will be communicated through newsletters, presentations, and peer-review articles. This summer, we will share results from the experiment at a field day on August 4 at the Farm Hub. Our presentations will hopefully enable participants to tie in-field observations to scientific results. The field day will also cover tips and tools used to establish our organic no-till crops and help participants make management plans for organic no-till crop production. Follow the Hudson Valley Farm Hub’s website and Facebook page for coverage of the forthcoming field day and for more information on the experiment and its findings.

Weed biomass in winter cash crops (lbs/ac)
Cover crop
Canola
Cereal rye
Winter pea
Winter wheat
Tilled
604
422
1002
292
Buckwheat
1003
316
1939*
482
Sunn hemp (SH)
362
143
2437*
381
Sorghum sudangrass (SS)
2652*
381
3567*
950*
SS x SH
1195*
155
1573
643*
Weed biomass in summer cash crops (lbs/ac)
Cover crop
Dry bean
Soybean
Sunflower
Sweet corn
Tilled
2794
2100
1586
2441
Canola
1507
902*
1840
1265*
Cereal rye (CR)
685*
750*
854*
821*
Hairy vetch (HV)
1455*
2782
1059
1225*
HV X CR
387*
732*
759*
892*

Weed biomass in winter and summer cash crops. The asterisks indicate when a cover crop treatment mean is different than the tilled control treatment mean (P < 0.05).

Winter cash crop yeild (lbs/ac)
Cover crop
Canola
Cereal rye
Winter pea
Winter wheat
Tilled
2672
5032
1354
3544
Buckwheat
2226
4661
786
3091
Sunn hemp (SH)
2897
5128
1637
3301
Sorghum sudangrass (SS)
189*
3173*
345*
1555*
SS x SH
1555
4375
1303
2983
Summer cash crop yield (lbs/ac)
Cover crop
Dry bean
Soybean
Sunflower
Sweet corn
Tilled
700
1859
675
2392
Canola
1036*
1748
63*
1541*
Cereal rye (CR)
1705*
1940
1042
2454
Hairy vetch (HV)
1777*
2183
1694*
8167*
HV X CR
2257*
2540
1240
4438*

Crop yield in winter and summer cash crops. The asterisks indicate when a cover crop treatment mean is different than the tilled control treatment mean (P < 0.05).

Uriel D. Menalled is a Ph.D. candidate in the Cornell Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab. His doctorate evaluates reduced-tillage systems through experiments that test weed and crop management, weed community assembly, and cropping system profitability. These experiments have led to collaborations with the Hudson Valley Farm Hub and the French national institute for agriculture.

Dr. Matthew R. Ryan leads the Cornell Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab and is an associate professor at Cornell University with over a decade of research experience on organic no-till crop production systems in the Northeast.

REFERENCES

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