Published online by Cambridge University Press: 02 December 2019
Organic grain producers are interested in reducing tillage to conserve soil and decrease labor and fuel costs. We examined agronomic and economic tradeoffs associated with alternative strategies for reducing tillage frequency and intensity in a cover crop–soybean (Glycine max L. Merr.) sequence within a corn (Zea mays L.)–soybean–spelt (Triticum spelta L.) organic cropping system experiment in Pennsylvania. Tillage-based soybean production preceded by a cover crop mixture of annual ryegrass (Lolium perenne L. ssp. multiflorum), orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata L.) and forage radish (Raphanus sativus L.) interseeded into corn grain (Z. mays L.) was compared with reduced-tillage soybean production preceded by roller-crimped cereal rye (Secale cereale L.) that was sown after corn silage. Total aboveground weed biomass did not differ between soybean production strategies. Each strategy, however, was characterized by high inter-annual variability in weed abundance. Tillage-based soybean production marginally increased grain yield by 0.28 Mg ha−1 compared with reduced-tillage soybean. A path model of soybean yield indicated that soybean stand establishment and weed biomass were primary drivers of yield, but soybean production strategy had a measurable effect on yields due to factors other than within-season weed–crop competition. Cumulative tillage frequency and intensity were quantified for each cover crop—sequence using the Soil Tillage Intensity Rating (STIR) index. The reduced-tillage soybean sequence resulted in 50% less soil disturbance compared to tillage-based soybean sequence across study years. Finally, enterprise budget comparisons showed that the reduced-tillage soybean sequence resulted in lower input costs than the tillage-based soybean sequence but was approximately $114 ha−1 less profitable because of lower average yields.