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Reducing tillage intensity in vegetable crops

Quick facts

  • Tillage is harmful to soil in the long term, but it provides short-term benefits that can make growing vegetables easier.
  • Alternative strategies can achieve the same benefits as tillage.
  • Tillage is traditionally used to create new plots, to loosen and aerate soils, and for weed and disease management.
  • Solarization, more targeted tillage tools, and cover crops are a few alternatives to tillage that can help growers achieve these goals.

Reducing tillage provides long-term benefits to soil health. Soils that experience reduced tillage tend to have more stability, resistance to compaction, improved water holding capacity, less erosion, and enhanced biological activity.

For a full discussion of the benefits of reducing tillage, read more about reducing tillage in field crops.

While tillage is harmful in the long term, it provides short-term benefits that can make growing vegetables easier. We'll examine why farmers till their soil and alternative strategies to achieve the same benefits.

Breaking up compact soils

Breaking up compact soils is one of the primary reasons that people till their soil. Tillage can be used to create new plots in areas that were previously under different management strategies (such as turfgrass or pasture), but it is also used annually to help loosen soils before planting. 

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Residue and cover crop management

Incorporating residues into the soil is important for a few reasons. Plant residues on the surface can serve as hosts on which insect pests and crop pathogens survive between growing seasons. Decomposing green matter, like crop residues or cover crops, can also compete for nutrients in the soil.

It is ideal to have a majority of the residues broken down at the time of planting. Tillage helps speed up the process by breaking residues into smaller pieces and burying them in the soil where they are more accessible to microbes.

However, tillage also compacts the soil and degrades soil structure over time. There are a few strategies growers can use to manage residues with limited tillage.

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Preparing fields for planting

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Fertilizer incorporation

Plastic drip irrigation hoses are hooked up to larger plastic hoses. There is a pressure regulator connected to the hose system in the middle of the photo, with a small tube connecting to a bottle containing fertilizer, which gets injected into the water at the point of the pressure regulator.
Water-soluble fertilizer can be added to fields through irrigation water in a process called fertigation.

Ideally, fertilizer should be incorporated into the soil for maximum plant uptake and minimum losses to the environment. Applying nitrogen on top of the soil can lead to denitrification, and applying phosphorus on top of the soil can lead to runoff. So how can we incorporate nutrients into the soil while still minimizing soil disturbance? 

  • Banded applications: Apply fertilizer in furrows at a depth of 4-6 inches using a coulter, or in small-scale systems a Dutch or Warren hoe. There is still some degree of disturbance with this approach, but it is far more targeted than tillage. Do not apply directly into furrows where you are seeding to avoid burning plants; make your furrows for fertilizing a few inches away from your crops.
  • Injecting fertilizer into the soil: This is a common approach among field crop growers, who directly inject anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate in field crops. These types of fertilizers are not as common in vegetables. 
  • Strip tillage: Strip tillage and permanent bed systems allow for more traditional incorporation of fertilizers while still maintaining beneficial residue levels across the field. 

Fertigation: Fertigation refers to the application of fertilizers through irrigation water. Many vegetable farmers already use fertigation in high tunnels. This is an effective way to inject fertilizer directly near the root system and the water helps to pull nutrients deeper into the soil profile.

Disease, insect, and weed management

Tillage may have less of an impact on insects and pathogens than is commonly thought, but it does have a significant impact on the dynamics of your weed seedbank and timing of emergence of weed seedlings.

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Additional resources

In 2020 University of Minnesota Extension and Land Stewardship hosted four virtual field days at vegetable farms, highlighting reduced tillage and other soil health practices. You can view the videos from each field day.

Author: Natalie Hoidal, Extension educator, local foods and vegetable crops
Reviewed by: Jodi DeJong-Hughes, Claire LaCanne and Angie Peltier Extension educators, Charlie Rohwer, researcher

Reviewed in 2021

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