Conservation tillage systems minimize soil disturbance and maintain 30% cover with surface residue (SSSA, 2005). Despite potential improvements in soil physical and biological properties, the adoption of conservation tillage practices for vegetable crops in the Northeast has been slow. Early research reported harvest delays and yield reductions for crops such as winter squash, tomatoes, and peppers in areas with cold, wet weather (Loy et al., 1987; McKeown et al., 1988; Teasdale and Mohler, 1993). Plant residue on the soil surface maintains cooler soil temperatures for longer periods in the spring (Hoyt, 1999; Teasdale and Mohler, 1993). Furthermore, a growing cover crop may compete for nutrients with the main crop if there is inadequate kill (Bottenberg et al., 1997). A decomposing cover crop can lead to immobilization of nutrients by soil microbes (Hoyt, 1999). In addition, allelopathic chemicals, from rye (Secale cereale L.) in particular, may interfere with the growth and yield of the main crop. For example, allelochemicals from rye completely inhibited germination of small-seeded crops such as tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum) and lettuce (Lactuca sativa) in laboratory trials (Burgos and Talbert, 2000) and reduced root growth of cucumber (Cucumis sativus) seedlings (Burgos et al., 2004). Growth and yield was not reduced, however, for transplanted tomatoes (Smeda and Weller, 1996), field corn (Duiker and Curran, 2005), and barley and sugar beets (Garwood et al., 1999) in field trials after rye cover cropping.
Rye is often used in the Northeast because it is winter hardy and can be planted relatively late (Stivers-Young, 1998). Rye scavenges the remaining soil nitrogen (Johnson and Hoyt, 1999; Stivers-Young, 1998), resulting in reduced nitrate leaching compared with nonmulched plots (Jackson et al., 2003). Rye surface mulch also increases soil microbial biomass (Jackson et al., 2003), suppresses weeds similar to herbicide-treated plots (Bottenberg et al., 1997), and has lower insect pests in conservation tillage systems (Bottenberg et al., 1997).
If soil quality benefits can be demonstrated early in the transition to conservation tillage with minimal or no crop yield reduction, growers will more likely to integrate these practices for vegetable crops. We examined the individual components of conservation tillage–the reduction of tillage, reported in a separate paper, Mochizuki et al. (2007), and in the concurrent study discussed here, the management of surface residue. We evaluated strategies with the potential to overcome initial vegetable yield reductions in the transitional year from conventional tillage, hypothesizing that dense surface residue would increase aggregate stability, reduce compaction, and increase soil water content, and natural decomposition of the mulch would eliminate negative impacts on cabbage growth and yield.
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