Video Clip: Ridge Till and Cover Crops from Vegetable Farmers and their Sustainable Tillage Practices


Vegetable Farmers and their Sustainable Tillage Practices [DVD]. V. Grubinger. 2007. University of Vermont Extension. Available for purchase at: (verified 31 Dec 2008).

This is a Vegetable Farmers and their Sustainable Tillage Practices video clip.

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Anne and Eric Nordell, Beech Grove Farm. Trout Run, PA.

Audio Text

I’m Anne Nordell and this is my husband Eric. We’ve been farming here since 1983 in the village of Beech Grove, Pennsylvania. Our farm is about 90 acres but we are mainly farming about 7 acres under cultivation, managing for vegetables. We supply locally to Williamsport, Pennsylvania which is about 25 miles away, we do a farmers market once a week and we supply restaurants and grocery stores.

One of our goals when we started farming here was to keep this a two-person operation. Also we wanted to rely on horsepower completely, not only for tillage, but also for fertility. So that limits our labor, our power and our fertility source and consequently we rely on cover crops extensively. In fact we take half of the land out of production each year just to grow cover crops. This has helped tremendously with weed control, maintaining the tilth of our silt-loam soil, as well as preserving moisture, which is an issue for us because we don’t have irrigation. One reason we got into reduced tillage was really to optimize the benefits of the annual cover crops. Intensive tillage can also often destroy everything we’ve gained so by minimizing the depth and intensity of tillage we can preserve more of those benefits.

We like to use the horses for several reasons. First of all I just love working behind horses, that’s just what gets me going, it sustains my interest. They also save the fossil fuel and the pollution associated with that. And of course there’s less problems with compaction and so on. You can take anything we’re doing here and do it with a tractor, probably with fewer passes and maybe a lot less aggravation.

It was about ten years ago that we started experimenting with reduced tillage and using this ridge till system. For years before that we’d been using a winter kill cover crop, just working it into the surface of the soil for early-planted vegetables. That worked great for conditioning the soil, for erosion control, moisture preservation, but it was a problem in springs when it was cold and wet. So we started planting the cover crops on these ridges, it allows the soil to warm up and dry out faster in the spring, it also enables us just to peel the top off the ridge moving the cover crop residues into the pathway. If there are any winter weeds on the ridge-top it also sheds them off into the pathway where it’s easy to control them with mechanical cultivation.

One of the differences in doing this kind of minimum tillage with the horses is that we have to break it down into several steps. With a tractor you can do all the ridge building steps in one pass, I simply don’t have the physical strength to raise and lower that much equipment on the old riding cultivator so we do it in three steps. After broadcasting the seed, we build the ridges and then we come back and inter-seed the pathways and then the final step is to roll the ridges with a cultipacker. The idea is that we want to level them, make a nice, flat seedbed and also to create better seed-to-soil contact for the cover crop seed. It’ll bring the moisture up to germinate it.

Typically we plant oats like you see here and the peas coming up, this makes a nice mix of a small grain and legume. In this planting we also have sorghum- sudangrass to boost the carbon and cover crop biomass.

These steps we use for preconditioning the beds for planting in the spring. The residue cutter chops the residue, it also makes those slits in the soil where it kind of of hairpins the residue in. So then we can go over with this rotary hoe and just lightly till the surface of the soil. This makes it possible for us just to make a furrow for transplanting, we’ll just go right into it, or we’ll scrape the top off the ridges for direct seeding. It probably looks like these tools aren’t doing much, but that’s really the whole point, we’re just trying to loosen the top inch of the soil, the residue cutter slices the residue it also cuts about an inch deep in the soil. The rotary hoe loosens that up. You can see we have this sort of crumb mulch on the surface. When we peel this back to plant, you know, we’ll have a nice seedbed for planting.

Here’s a field where crops have been planted into our ridge till system. The previous fall we built the ridges and planted a cover crop of oats and peas, they winter-killed, they die back and then the following spring, what we did is we go through with the residue cutter to cut up the residue and then we went through with the rotary hoe to kind of loosen up the beds. And then all we did is we made a narrow slit in the soil and then planted the transplants of onions and leeks. Because the residue breaks down so fast it doesn’t really provide weed control or moisture control, so what we do is we put down wheat straw in the pathways in order to preserve moisture, but the weeds have not been a big problem here we have not done any hand weeding in this field at all.

This video project was funded in part by the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (USDA).  

Published June 3, 2011

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