Organic no-till and strip-till systems have gained attention because of their reported capacity to enhance soil health and suppress annual weeds. This study, conducted at the Horticulture Research Station, Ames, IA, over 2 years (2013–14 and 2014–15) compared a cover crop–based no tillage (NT), strip tillage (ST), and conventional tillage (CT) in transitional organic broccoli (Brassica oleracea L. var. italica) production, with data collected on broccoli yield and quality, plant health, weed suppression, soil temperature, and cost of production. A cover crop mixture of cereal rye (Secale cereale L.) and hairy vetch (Vicia villosa Roth.) was seeded in all plots in September, and was ended by rolling and crimping (NT and ST) or soil incorporation (CT) in late spring the following year. Each whole-plot tillage treatment was split into two subplot fertility treatments—one based entirely on organic preplant granular fertilizer, and the other split between preplant granular fertilizer and postplanting fertigation—to test the effect of fertigation on yield and plant growth under the typically nitrogen (N)-limited reduced tillage conditions. In 2014, yield of broccoli was highest in CT treatments, averaging 5.4 t·ha−1, with no difference between ST and NT treatments. In 2015, yields were equal among tillage treatments, averaging 20.0 t·ha−1. Changing the timing of fertilizer application through the use of fertigation did not affect yield. Weed density and biomass were lowest in the between-row (BR) regions of NT and ST plots in 2014, indicating effective early-season weed suppression. In 2015, NT and ST plots generally had lower weed biomass and density compared with CT plots, but weed growth in BR and in-row (IR) regions of NT and ST plots was similar. Soil temperature was highest in CT plots throughout the year, and higher in ST than in NT plots only during some periods. While production costs did vary slightly across treatments, profit per hectare was most strongly affected by yield. Our findings suggest that cover crop–based organic NT and ST systems may be viable options for organic broccoli growers.
We would like to thank and acknowledge the Ceres Trust and United States Department of Agriculture North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant number GNC14-189 for the financial support to conduct this study.
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