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Organic Weed Control and Cover Crop Residue Integration Impacts on Weed Control, Quality, Yield and Economics in Conservation Tillage Tomato-A Case Study

Written By

Andrew J. Price, Leah M. Duzy, Kip S. Balkcom, Jessica A. Kelton, Ted S. Kornecki and Lina Sarunaite

Submitted: March 12th, 2015 Reviewed: August 20th, 2015 Published: March 9th, 2016

DOI: 10.5772/61315

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The increased adoption of conservation tillage and organic weed control practices in vegetable production requires more information on the role of various cover crops in integrated weed control, tomato quality, and yield. Two conservation-tillage systems utilizing crimson clover and cereal rye as winter cover crops were compared to a conventional black polythene mulch system, with or without organic weed management options, for weed control, tomato yield, and profitability. All cover crops were terminated with a mechanical roller/crimper prior to planting. Organic weed control treatments included: 1) flaming utilizing a one burner hand torch, 2) PRE application of corn gluten, 3) PRE application of corn gluten followed by flaming, or 4) intermittent hand weeding as needed. A non-treated control and a standard herbicide program were included for comparison. The herbicide program consisting of a PRE application of S-metolachlor (1.87 kg a.i./ha) followed by an early POST metribuzin (0.56 kg a.i. /ha) application followed by a late POST application of clethodim (0.28 kg a.i./ha). In general, high-residue clover and cereal rye cover crops provided substantial suppression of Palmer amaranth, large crabgrass, and yellow nutsedge. Across systems, minimum input in high-residue systems provided the highest net returns above variable costs compared to organic herbicide treatments that are costly and provide marginal benefit.


  • Conservation agriculture
  • cover crop
  • fruit

1. Introduction

In recent years, growing concerns over the environmental impact of conventional agricultural practices, coupled with a surge in consumer demand for sustainably-produced products, have led to increased grower adoption of organic agriculture. In 2011, cropland in the United States (U.S.) dedicated to organic vegetable production totaled over 47 thousand ha [1]. Organically produced vegetable sales, were estimated at 1.07 billion USD in 2011 [1]. Given the steady rise in organic product interest and efforts to ensure agricultural sustainability, a substantial amount of research has been dedicated to organic fruit and vegetable production in order to guarantee successful adoption of these practices as an alternative to conventional agriculture.

Unlike conventional agricultural practices, an organic approach to agriculture eliminates the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and, instead, relies on biological and cultural pesticide control and organic soil amendments such as manure and crop residue to maintain soil fertility [2]. The goal of organic agriculture includes producing food and fiber products in a manner that increases biodiversity, promoting soil health, and reducing environmental degradation due to agricultural practices. A number of ecological differences have been noted in previous research when comparing conventional and organic agriculture [3,4]. Comparisons of soil properties and pest population dynamics for organic and traditional farming practices note differences between these systems that affect the agroecosystem [3,4].


2. Case study

In the U.S. approximately 1.36 million tons of in the open, fresh market tomatoes, worth over 1.134 billion USD, were produced on nearly 41.2 thousand ha in 2014 [5]. Tomato production systems typically utilize conventional tillage, a bedded plastic mulch culture, and multiple herbicide applications to control weeds. These conventional tillage systems enhance soil erosion and nutrient loss by reducing rainfall infiltration [6]. Additionally, tillage increases aeration which increases the rate of organic matter mineralization in the surface soil, thus reducing soil organic matter content, soil cation exchange capacity and potential productivity [7, 8].

Plastic mulch can increase soil temperature which can expedite tomato harvest [9]. Tomato harvest was not early following a hairy vetch mulch system [10, 11]. The use of plastic mulches in sustainable or organic production systems is in question by some producers and consumers since the mulch itself is non-biodegradable and made of non-renewable resources. Another environmental disadvantage with using plastic mulch vs. organic mulches is increased chemical runoff from plastic mulch systems and subsequent offsite chemical loading [12]. Thus, the intensive use of pesticides in vegetable production has resulted in ecological concerns. Therefore, alternative production practices that reduce tomato production inputs while maintaining yield and quality are desired.

One alternative for alleviating the aforementioned concerns is the use of high residue cover crops combined with reduced tillage. Cover crops in conservation-tillage systems can be terminated during early reproductive growth by mechanically rolling and treating with burndown herbicides to leave a dense mat of residue (> 4,500 kg/ha) on the soil surface into which cash crops are planted [13, 14]. Adoption of high residue cover crops is increasing in southeastern U.S. corn (Zea mays L.) and cotton (Gossypium hirsutum L.) row crop systems [15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20]. Because the southeastern U.S. typically receives adequate rainfall in the winter months, timely planted winter cover crops can attain relatively high maturity and biomass before termination. Cover crops can enhance the overall productivity and soil quality by increasing organic matter and nitrogen content [21], as well as aid in water conservation by increasing soil water infiltration rates [22]. Additionally, previous research has also focused on weed control provided by high residue cover crops in both field and vegetable crops [23, 24, 25].

Winter cover crop biomass can affect subsequent early season weed control [26, 27]. Cover crop residue facilitates weed control by providing an unfavorable environment for weed germination and establishment under the residue as well as allelopathy [28, 29]. Teasdale and Daughtry [30] reported 52–70% reduction in weed biomass with live hairy vetch cover crop compared to a fallow treatment owing to changes in light and soil temperature regimen under the vetch canopy. Teasdale and Mohler [27] reported that legume mulches such as crimson clover and hairy vetch (Vicia villosa Roth) suppressed redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retrofloxus L.) at an exponential rate as a function of residue biomass.

However, adoption of cover crops in tomato production has been limited because (1) currently available transplanters have problems penetrating heavy residue and (2) heavy cover crop residue can intercept delivery of soil-active herbicides. Research in the last two decades has extensively debated the advantages and disadvantages of cover crops vs. conventional plastic mulch systems for tomato production. Better or comparable tomato yields with hairy vetch cover crop system have been reported compared to the conventional polyethylene mulch system [31, 32]. Akemo et al. [33] also reported higher tomato yield with spring sown cover crops than the conventionally cultivated check. However, weed control with cover crops varies with cover crop species, amount of residue produced, and environmental conditions. Teasdale [28] reported that biomass levels achieved by cover crops before termination was sufficient only for early season weed control. Supplemental weed control measures are usually required to achieve season long weed control and to avoid yield losses [34, 23].

Cereal rye and crimson clover are two common winter cover crops widely used in the southeastern U.S. Both cover crops contain allelopathic compounds and produce residues that inhibit weed growth [15, 29, 35]. Brassica cover crops are relatively new in the southeastern U.S. but are becoming increasingly popular due to their potential allelopathic effects. Therefore, the objectives of this research were to evaluate: 1) weed control in two different high residue cover crop conservation tillage systems utilizing the Brazilian [13] high residue cover crop management system including cover crop rolling and 2) tomato stand establishment, yield, and net returns of conservation-transplanted tomatoes compared to the polythene mulch system following three different organic herbicide management systems.


3. Materials and methods

Field Experiment. The experiment was established in autumn 2006 at the North Alabama Horticulture Experiment Station, Cullman, AL on a Hartsells fine sandy loam soil (Fine-loamy, siliceous, sub-active, thermic Typic Hapludults). The experimental design was a randomized complete block with four replicates. Plot size at both locations was 1.8 by 6 m containing a single row of tomatoes with a 0.5 m spacing between plants.

The two winter cover crops (cereal rye cv Elbon and crimson clover cv AU Robin) were compared to black polythene mulch for their weed suppressive potential and effect on yield and grade of fresh market tomatoes. Winter cover crops were planted with a no till drill in the fall. Rye was seeded at a rate of 100 kg/ha, whereas clover was seeded at 28 kg/ha. Since the overall objective was to evaluate weed control practices, general production practices included staking, traditional plant pest and plant pathogen methods, and fertilization was utilized to exclude any other pest and fertilization interactions and is a limitation of this case study. Nitrogen was applied at a rate of 67 kg/ha on rye plots in early spring of each year. Cover crops were terminated at flowering stage in late spring. To determine winter cover crop biomass production, plants were clipped at ground level from one randomly selected 0.25 m2 area per replicate immediately before termination. Plant samples were dried at 65 C for 72 hours and weighed. Cover crops were terminated with a mechanical roller crimper prior to an application of glyphosate at 1.12 kg a.e. /ha-1. The rolling process produced a uniform residue cover over the plots.

All three systems (two winter cover crops plus plastic mulch) were evaluated with and without herbicide for weed control. Organic weed control treatments included: 1) flaming utilizing a one burner hand torch, 2) PRE application of corn gluten, 3) PRE application of corn gluten followed by flaming, or 4) intermittent hand weeding as needed. A non-treated control and a standard herbicide program were included for comparison. The herbicide program consisting of a PRE application of S-metolachlor (1.87 kg a.i. ha-1) followed by an early POST (EPOST) metribuzin (0.56 kg a.i. ha-1) application followed by a late POST (LPOST) application of clethodim (0.28 kg a.i.ha-1). The PRE corn gluten application occurred immediately after tomato transplanting while the PRE herbicide application occurred prior to placing the plastic on top of the beds, the EPOST application was applied two weeks after transplanting, and the LPOST application was delayed until tomatoes were near mid-bloom. Flaming and hand hoeing was accomplished one week after transplanting and subsequently every two weeks following until harvest. Tomato cv. ‘Florida 47’ seedlings were transplanted on April 12, 2007.

Tomato seedlings were planted with a modified RJ no-till transplanter (RJ Equipment, Blenhiem, Ontario, Canada), which included a subsoiler shank installed to penetrate the heavy residue and disrupt a naturally occurring compacted soil layer found at both experimental sites at a depth of 30-40 cm. Additionally, two driving wheels were utilized (one wheel on each side of the tomato row) instead of the original single wheel at the center of the row, to improve stability and eliminate drive wheel re-compaction of the soil opening created by the shank. The plastic-mulch plots were conventionally tilled utilizing a tractor mounted rototiller prior to bedding and plastic installation; tomatoes were hand transplanted in the plastic mulch each year. Water was applied to all the plots immediately after transplanting. Thereafter, plots were irrigated every other day using a surface drip tape. Fertilizer 13-13-13 was applied prior to planting achieving 448 kg of N/ha-1 and then 7.8 kg of calcium nitrate ha-1 was applied once every week with the irrigation system.

Weed control was evaluated by visual ratings (0% = no control, 100% = complete control) 28 days after treatment (DAT) of the EPOST herbicide application. All weed species present were evaluated for control (as a reduction in total above ground biomass resulting from both reduced emergence and growth). Stand establishment was determined by counting the number of living tomato plants in each plot two weeks after LPOST application. Ripe tomatoes were hand harvested from the entire plot area in weekly intervals and sorted according to size (small, medium, large, and extra large categories).

Statistical Analysis. Non-normality and heterogeneous variances were encountered with percent control data. Various approaches were tried to alleviate these statistical problems and the arcsine transformation was deemed the best compromise between achieving normality of residuals and among treatment homogeneity of variances. The transformed data were subjected to mixed models analysis of variance as implemented in JMP statistical software. Years, organic herbicide treatments and ground cover treatments were considered fixed effects while their interaction with treatment replication was considered random effects. Differences between treatments means were determined by Fisher's protected LSD (α = 0.05).

Economic analysis. Net returns above variable treatment costs (NRAVTC) were estimated as the difference between revenues and variable treatment costs (US$ ha-1). The average weekly dollar per box (assuming an 11.34 kg box-1) price for the four harvest weeks was used to calculate revenue by grade (i.e., small, medium, large, and extra-large). The weekly prices were from domestic suppliers at the terminal market in Atlanta, Georgia [36]. Low- and high-end prices from 2007 were reported for each grade category from suppliers (domestic suppliers aggregated by State), excluding international suppliers. The low-end and high-end tomato prices by size were the average of prices in 2007 across suppliers, and are presented in Table 1. All prices were reported in 2007 US$.

Tomato Size Low-end Price High-end Price Mean
US$ box-1
Small 10.06 10.69 10.38
Medium 9.47 10.14 9.81
Large 9.34 9.99 9.67
Extra-large 9.41 10.28 9.85
Mean 9.57 10.58

Table 1.

Tomato prices by size by low-end and high-end price.

The average marketing year price, regardless of organic certification, received by producers in Alabama in 2007 for fresh market tomatoes across all sizes (7.21 US$ box-1). For organically produced tomatoes, the average price received by Alabama producers for organic tomatoes in 2008 of 9.32 US$ box-1 across all sizes [37]. Data for organic tomatoes was not available in 2007. Therefore, the low-end prices by size were used in the analysis.

Productions costs for the three covers and five weed control treatments were adapted from 2008 tomato enterprise budgets [38] and experiment specific treatment costs. A partial budgeting approach was used to calculated variable treatments costs; therefore, the only costs considered were costs that differed by treatment and costs that varied by yield (Table 2). Costs that vary by yield include harvest costs, as well as grading and packing labor costs. Fixed costs, such as management costs, rent, and depreciation on machinery and buildings, differ by operation; therefore, they were not included in the analysis.

Weed Control Cover Type
Plastic Rye Clover
US$ ha-1
No Treatment 2226 505 376
Handweed 3658 1937 1808
Flame Corn Gluten 12935 11214 11085
Flame 2859 1138 1009
Herbicide 2392 671 542

Table 2.

Variable treatment costs (excluding costs that vary by yield).


4. Results and discussion

Cover Crop Biomass. The quantity of cover crop biomass produced at both locations differed among cover crops, with rye producing 9363 kg/ha, and crimson clover producing 5481 kg/ha of dry matter.

Weed Control. The major weeds in the cover crop and plastic mulch plots included Palmer amaranth (Amaranthus Palmeri L.), large crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis L.), and yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus L.).

Palmer amaranth. Early Palmer amaranth control averaged over weed management systems, clover and rye cover treatments provided excellent Palmer amaranth control (90 and 96% respectively) compared to the conventional plastic system (5% control) (Table 3). The plastic system provides some inherent weed control regardless of additional inputs, however, it provided no weed control in the punched holes and the area adjacent the bed. Palmer amaranth control in clover utilizing corn gluten and flaming was equivalent to the clover plus herbicide standard. Palmer amaranth in rye utilizing all organic methods excluding hand weeding provided weed control equivalent to the rye plus herbicide standard. Late Palmer amaranth control ratings generally remained stable except increases for plastic due to the inherent control discussed above.

Large Crabgrass. Early crabgrass control averaged over weed management system reflected control similar to Palmer amaranth, clover and rye cover treatments provided excellent crabgrass control (92 and 98% respectively) compared to the conventional plastic system (5% control) (Table 4). All rye systems provided excellent control. Late season crabgrass control was generally higher than that of Palmer amaranth.

Yellow nutsedge. Early yellow nutsedge control averaged over weed management systems reflected control similar to Palmer amaranth and large crabgrass with clover systems providing an average 93% control and rye systems providing an average 95% control. Control in both clover and rye systems was excellent regardless of treatment revealing that winter cover crops suppress nutsedge in high-residue systems.

% Weed Control
Early Control Late Control
Cover Pigweed Crabgrass Nutsedge Pigweed Crabgrass Nutsedge
Clover 90a 92a 93a 92a 98a 98a
Rye 96a 98a 95a 88a 97a 98a
Plastic 5b 5b 5b 33b 37b 43b
LSD (α = 0.10) 7 13 9 12 14 13
Weed Control1
1 63ba 64a 63ba 60b 71a 73ba
2 57b 61a 64ba 73ba 81a 82ba
3 61ba 61a 55b 77ba 80a 82ba
4 65ba 65a 66ba 61b 65a 66b
5 72a 72a 74a 86a 87a 96a
LSD (α = 0.10) 10 10 12 15 18 17
Clover 1 93a 96a 90a 88a 97a 98a
Clover 2 80a 86a 93a 92a 98a 98a
Clover 3 85a 85a 86a 91a 98a 99a
Clover 4 97a 97a 99a 92a 97a 98a
Clover 5 97a 96a 97a 99a 99a 98a
Plastic 1 0b 0b 0b 6b 20bc 23b
Plastic 2 0b 0b 0b 49ba 50bac 50ba
Plastic 3 0b 0b 0b 50ba 50bac 50ba
Plastic 4 0b 0b 0b 0b 0c 0b
Plastic 5 23b 23b 25b 61a 65ba 90a
Rye 1 97a 97a 98a 86a 97a 99a
Rye 2 92a 97a 98a 79a 96a 99a
Rye 3 97a 99a 81a 90a 94a 96a
Rye 4 98a 99a 99a 90a 98a 99a
Rye 5 96a 98a 99a 98a 99a 99a
LSD (α = 0.10) 17 17 21 27 31 29

Table 3.

Weed Response to Cover Crops and Weed Control Methods – North Alabama Horticultural Research Center 2007.

1Weed control methods are as follows: (1) non-treated; (2) hand-weeded; (3) corn gluten + flame; (4) flame; and (5) herbicide.


Aside from the herbicide treatment, greater than 20% of the total tomato yield were cull tomatoes under plastic cover.

Tomato Yield (kg/ha)
Cover Cull S M L XL Total Market2
Clover 5577a 4838a 9906a 12298a 263a 32883a 27305a
Rye 5479a 4778a 9649a 11031a 272a 31210a 25731a
Plastic 4226b 2599b 4566b 7526b 158a 19074b 14848b
LSD (α = 0.10) 612 576 1078 1931 197 3254 2931
Weed Control1
1 4159c 4006a 6669b 7149c 283ba 22266c 18107c
2 5112bac 4634a 8220b 8466cb 54b 26486cb 21374cb
3 5554ba 4003a 8355b 11248b 241ba 29402b 23848b
4 4547bc 3871a 6471b 6565c 58b 21512c 16966c
5 6098a 3845a 10486a 17996a 518a 38944a 32846a
LSD (α = 0.10) 790 744 1392 2493 255 4201 3784
Clover 1 5076bac 4972bdac 9197bdac 10390bedc 240a 29874bc 24799bc
Clover 2 6204a 6395a 10218bdac 10004bedc 161a 32982bac 26779bac
Clover 3 5673ba 5315bac 10814bac 11284bc 194a 33280bac 27608bac
Clover 4 4233bac 381ebdc 7463bdc 8029edc 125a 23660edc 19427dc
Clover 5 6702a 3698ebdc 11838ba 21782a 594a 44615a 37913a
Plastic 1 2974c 2107e 2226e 2629ed 0a 9937e 6963d
Plastic 2 4556bac 2676ed 5953de 8388edc 0a 21574edc 17018dc
Plastic 3 5098bac 2838edc 5693de 10491bdc 238a 24357dc 19259dc
Plastic 4 3494bc 2143e 2668e 1892e 0a 10197ed 6703d
Plastic 5 5006bac 3229ebdc 6289dec 14228bac 552a 29304bc 24297bc
Rye 1 4428bac 4937bdac 8584bdc 8429edc 610a 26988c 22560c
Rye 2 4577bac 4831bdac 8490bdc 7005edc 0a 24902c 20325c
Rye 3 5892ba 3855ebdc 8559bdc 11970bc 292a 30567bac 24676bc
Rye 4 5913ba 5659ba 9283bdac 9775bedc 50a 30679bac 24767bc
Rye 5 6587a 4608ebdac 13332a 17978ba 409a 42913ba 36327ba
LSD (α = 0.10) 1368 1288 2410 4319 441 7277 6554

Table 4.

Tomato Yield Response to Cover Crops and Weed Control Methods - North Alabama Horticultural Research Center 2007.

1Weed control methods are as follows: (1) non-treated; (2) hand-weeded; (3) corn gluten + flame; (4) flame; and (5) herbicide.

2Market is the marketable yield calculated by subtracting the culls from the total.


All treatments produced numerically higher NRVTC than the control, with the exception of plastic cover with flame treatment (Table 5). The clover cover and herbicide treatment produced the highest NRAVTC in 2007, followed by rye cover and herbicide treatment (Table 6). Both the non-treated control combined with clover and rye, as well as flame and hand-weeded treatments with clover cover, yielded higher NRAVTC than plastic with herbicide treatment. Across all cover treatments, corn gluten + flame had the lowest NRAVTC. The performance of corn gluten + flame was directly related to the cost of the corn gluten. As discussed above the corn gluten + flame weed control with clover cover had the third highest market tomato yields.

While total market yield is an important indicator of net returns, the distribution of tomatoes by size determines the level of revenue depending on the price by size. The price for each size is driven by the supply of each type of size and when the tomatoes are harvested during the season. This analysis did not consider harvest period in the revenue determination.

Cover Type Weed Control1 NRAVTC2 Difference from Control3
Mean SD
(US$ ha-1)
Clover 1 4680 1568 2254
2 3718 1524 1293
3 -5465 702 -7890
4 2951 1526 525
5 6910 1167 4485
Plastic 1 -769 421 -3194
2 -245 2079 -2671
3 -9088 1809 -11513
4 -1439 480 -3865
5 2426 549 0
Rye 1 4130 625 1704
2 2262 651 -164
3 -6261 1024 -8686
4 3954 1663 1528
5 6563 261 4137

Table 5.

Net returns above variable treatment costs by treatment and the difference between treatments and the control.

1 Weed control methods are as follows: (1) non-treated; (2) hand-weeded; (3) corn gluten + flame; (4) flame; and (5) herbicide.

2 Net returns above variable treatment cost (NRAVTC); standard deviations are shown in parentheses.

3 The control is plastic cover with no weed control.

This research demonstrates that high residue cover crops like cereal rye and clover can provide improved weed control compared to black polyethylene mulch. Previous research has also reported improved weed control with increased biomass production by cover crops [39]. Increased weed control has also been observed by Nagabhushna et al. [40] with an increase in the seeding rate of rye. Another important factor which could have facilitated increased weed control by rye and clover residue is rolling with mechanical roller crimper. The rolling process resulted in a uniform mat of residue on the soil surface that was a substantial physical barrier for weed seedlings to emerge through compared to tomato plant openings in the plastic mulch system that provides no barrier. Yenish et al. [41] also reported inconsistent control with cover crop residue and concluded herbicides were always required to achieve optimum weed control in corn. However, Yenish et al. cautioned weed control should not be the only criterion in selection of cover crops. Factors like cost and ease of establishment, impact on yield should be taken into consideration before selecting a cover crop. Results in this paper are short term effects of converting from a conventional plastic mulch system to two high-residue conservation tillage systems. These results indicate the economic possibility of growing fresh market tomatoes utilizing a conservation tillage system while maintaining yields and economic returns. However, the long term impact of these systems on yield and profitability require further investigation.


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Written By

Andrew J. Price, Leah M. Duzy, Kip S. Balkcom, Jessica A. Kelton, Ted S. Kornecki and Lina Sarunaite

Submitted: March 12th, 2015 Reviewed: August 20th, 2015 Published: March 9th, 2016