In a cool, rainy climate such as the northeastern United States, field operations in vegetable systems are often based on stringent production schedules rather than ideal soil moisture conditions (Wolfe et al., 1995). Cabbage production is particularly susceptible to a decline in soil quality because field operations are often required when the soil is wet, both early in the spring and the late fall (Reiners, 2004).
Conservation tillage, any practice that minimizes soil and water loss and maintains 30% surface cover with cash or cover crop residue (Soil Science Society of America, 2005), could potentially balance some of the negative production-based impacts on soils. In practice, conservation tillage can be achieved by minimizing tillage operations temporally and spatially (e.g., reducing the number of times over a field or in the width or depth tilled) and managing surface residues (Magdoff and van Es, 2000). Research in conservation tillage has been ongoing since the 1960s and its success and adoption in agronomic crops such as field corn is well documented (Bentley, 1977; Cox et al., 1992; Young and Phillips, 1973).
Adoption of conservation tillage for vegetable crops grown in the Northeast, however, has been slow despite years of study with no tillage (directly seeding or transplanting into residue) or zone tillage (tillage within the planting zone of ≈10 to 15 cm width and depth). The primary reasons for limited adoption are reduced yields and delayed harvest for crops such as winter squash, tomatoes, and peppers (Loy et al., 1987; McKeown et al., 1988; Teasdale and Mohler, 1993; Johnson and Hoyt, 1999). The lack of tillage coupled with residue on the soil surface maintains cooler soil temperatures for longer periods in the spring (Teasdale and Mohler, 1993) and may explain much of the discrepancy of success for conservation tillage production between northern and southern climates.
Compaction is another yield-limiting factor in the transitional years to conservation tillage (Magdoff and van Es, 2000). For example, no-till soil is often more resistant to penetration than soil prepared by moldboard or a chisel plow in the first 2 years, particularly in the surface 7 to 8 cm (Kline, 1984). Moreover, cabbage plants are particularly sensitive to compaction with biomass and yield reduction as high as 60% and 70%, respectively (Wolfe et al., 1995).
The goal of this study was to overcome initial vegetable yield reductions associated with the transition to conservation tillage in cool climates by establishing reduced tillage treatments in a different field each year that had been previously conventionally tilled. Because tillage affects soil surface roughness and therefore reflection and retention of heat (Cruse et al., 1982) and can break previously compacted soil layers, zone tillage treatments were modified by width and depth of tillage to examine the relative importance of these two potential yield-reducing factors associated with transitioning to reduced tillage—cool soil temperature and high soil penetration resistance—and to identify the amount of tillage that maximized conservation values without reducing cabbage yield.
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