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Strip-tillage reduces productivity in organically managed grain and forage cropping systems in the Upper Midwest, USA

Sharon L. Weyers, David W. Archer, Frank Forcella, Russ Gesch, Jane M.F. Johnson
Renewable agriculture and food systems 2018 v.33 no.4 pp. 309-321
Glycine max, Medicago sativa, Secale cereale, Triticum aestivum, Zea mays, alfalfa, chiseling, computed tomography, conventional tillage, corn, correlation, cover crops, crop rotation, crop yield, disturbed soils, energy use and consumption, fertilizer application, forage crops, fuels, grain crops, management systems, no-tillage, nutrient availability, nutrient management, organic production, plant density, plows, production technology, rye, soil quality, soybeans, spring wheat, strip tillage, weed control, winter, Midwestern United States
Tillage is decreasing globally due to recognized benefits of fuel savings and improved soil health in the absence of disturbance. However, a perceived inability to control weeds effectively and economically hinders no-till adoption in organic production systems in the Upper Midwest, USA. A strip-tillage (ST) strategy was explored as an intermediate approach to reducing fuel use and soil disturbance, and still controlling weeds. An 8-year comparison was made between two tillage approaches, one primarily using ST the other using a combination of conventional plow, disk and chisel tillage [conventional tillage (CT)]. Additionally, two rotation schemes were explored within each tillage system: a 2-year rotation (2y) of corn (Zea mays L.), and soybean (Glycine max [L.] Merr.) with a winter rye (Secale cereale L.) cover crop; and a 4-year rotation (4y) of corn, soybean, spring wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) underseeded with alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.), and a second year of alfalfa. These treatments resulted in comparison of four main management systems CT-2y, CT-4y, ST-2y and ST-4y, which also were managed under fertilized and non-fertilized conditions. Yields, whole system productivity (evaluated with potential gross returns), and weed seed densities (first 4 years) were measured. Across years, yields of corn, soybean and wheat were greater by 34% or more under CT than ST but alfalfa yields were the same. Within tillage strategies, corn yields were the same in 2y and 4y rotations, but soybean yields, only under ST, were 29% lower in the fertilized 4y than 2 yr rotation. In the ST-4y system yields of corn and soybean were the same in fertilized and non-fertilized treatments. Over the entire rotation, system productivity was highest in the fertilized CT-2y system, but the same among fertilized ST-4y, and non-fertilized ST-2y, ST-4y, and CT-4y systems. Over the first 4 years, total weed seed density increased comparatively more under ST than CT, and was negatively correlated to corn yields in fertilized CT systems and soybean yields in the fertilized ST-2y system. These results indicated ST compromised productivity, in part due to insufficient weed control, but also due to reduced nutrient availability. ST and diverse rotations may yet be viable options given that overall productivity of fertilized ST-2y and CT-4y systems was within 70% of that in the fertilized CT-2y system. Closing the yield gap between ST and CT would benefit from future research focused on organic weed and nutrient management, particularly for corn.