Using a strip tillage system in combination with cover crops benefits vegetable farmers as well as the land, according to long-term research by Dan Brainard, a Michigan State University (MSU) horticulture researcher.
Brainard's research shows that strip tillage in combination with cover crops has big benefits over traditional tillage, including improved soil quality, and reduced wind and water erosion. It also conserves soil moisture, protects beneficial insects and reduces costs for the grower.
With funding from Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to meet Economic and Environmental Needs), Brainard was able to look at the costs and benefits of adopting a strip tillage and cover cropping system.
Specifically, his team of scientists examined the effects of this type of system on land planted with sweet corn and cabbage crops.
"We're experimenting with various cover crops to see which ones have the highest benefits for sweet corn and cabbage," he says. "So far, winter rye and hairy vetch seem to be working best."
Brainard says that weed management is the biggest challenge in strip till and cover cropping systems but that researchers are seeing improvements.
"The benefits most definitely outweigh the costs," he said. "It's all about reducing costs to the farmer, and in the long run, this system really does the job."
Using this type of system over time, Brainard's team has seen a significant improvement in soil quality, which, in turn, improves yields and crop quality.
Cover cropping and strip tilling also reduce irrigation and fertilization costs by buffering erosion and helping to keep soil-applied fertilizers and pesticides in place. Less tillage also means fewer tractor trips across the fields and reduced fuel costs.
In the three years of funding left for this research, Brainard is hopeful about continuing to experiment with various combinations.
"We're going to continue to monitor for weeds and see if we can't make our results even more impressive," Brainard said. "We're only looking to help growers save money by encouraging soil conservation, and that has proven benefits that can't be ignored."