Skip to main content

Comparing agroecosystems: Effects of cropping and tillage patterns on soil, water, energy use and productivity

  • Megan M. Gregory (a1), Kathleen L. Shea (a1) and Eugene B. Bakko (a1)

We compared soil characteristics, runoff water quantity and nutrient fluxes, energy use and productivity of three farm types in an unusually dry farming season: conventional (continuous corn and deep tillage), rotation (5-year corn–soybean–oats/alfalfa–alfalfa–alfalfa rotation with tillage 2/5 years) and no-till (corn–soybean with no cultivation). Soil organic matter content was highest on the rotation farm, followed by the no-till farm, and lowest on the conventional farm. Nitrate content of the soil did not differ significantly among the three farms, although the conventional farm had a much higher input of fertilizer nitrogen. Soil penetrometer resistance was lower and percent soil moisture was higher in the no-till and rotation systems compared to the conventional farm. Soil macroinvertebrate abundance and diversity were highest on the no-till farm, followed by the rotation farm. No invertebrates were found in the soil of the conventional farm. The conventional farm had the highest runoff volume per cm rain and higher nitrogen (N) loss in runoff when compared to the rotation and no-till farms, as well as a higher phosphorus (P) flux in comparison to the no-till farm. These results indicate that perennial close-seeded crops (such as alfalfa) used in crop rotations, as well as plant residue left on the surface of no-till fields, can enhance soil organic content and decrease runoff. The lower soil penetrometer resistance and higher soil moisture on the rotation and no-till farms show that conservation tillage can increase soil aggregation and water infiltration, both of which prevent erosion. Furthermore, crop rotation, and particularly no-till, promote diverse invertebrate populations, which play an important role in maintaining nutrient cycling and soil structure. Crop rotation and no-till agriculture are less fossil-fuel intensive than conventional agriculture, due to decreased use of fertilizers, pesticides and fuel. In this unusually dry year they provided superior corn and soybean yields, most likely due to higher soil moisture as a result of greater water infiltration and retention associated with cover crops (rotation farm) and crop residue (no-till farm).

Corresponding author
*Corresponding author:
Hide All
1Randall, G. 2003. Present-day Agriculture in Southern Minnesota: is it sustainable? University of Minnesota Southern Research and Outreach Center, Minneapolis, MN.
2Taliaferro, C. 2002. Family Farms. In Comstock, G. (ed.). Life Science Ethics. IA State Press, Ames, IA.
3Altieri, M. 1987. Agroecology: The Scientific Basis of Alternative Agriculture. Westview Press, Boulder, CO.
4Coleman, D.C., Cole, C.V. and Elliot, E.T. 1984. Decomposition, organic matter turnover, and nutrient dynamics in agroecosystems Agricultural Ecosystems. In Lowrance, R., Stinner, B.R. and House, G.J. (eds). Wiley-Interscience Publications, John Wiley and Sons, New York. P. 83104.
5Drinkwater, L.E., Wagoner, P. and Sarrantonio, M. 1998. Legume-based cropping systems have reduced carbon and nitrogen losses. Nature 396: 262265.
6Francis, C.A. and Clegg, M.D. 1990. Crop rotations in sustainable production systems Sustainable Production Systems. In Edwards, C., Lal, R., Madden, P., Miller, R. and House, G. (eds). Sustainable Agriculture Systems. St. Lucie Press, Delray Beach FL. 107122.
7Poincelot, R.P. 1986. Sustaining resources: soil. In Poincelot, R.P. (ed.). Toward a More Sustainable Agriculture. AVI Publishing Company, Westport CT. 116160.
8Woodmansee, R.G. 1984. Comparative nutrient cycles of natural and agricultural ecosystems. In Lowrance, R., Stinner, B.R., House, G.J. (eds). Agricultural Ecosystems. Wiley-Interscience Publications, John Wiley and Sons, New York. P. 145156.
9Holland, E.A. and Coleman, D.C. 1987. Litter placement effects on microbial and organic matter dynamics in an agricultural ecosystem. Ecology 68:(2): 425433.
10Altieri, M. 1999. The ecological role of biodiversity in agroecosystems. Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment 74: 1931.
11Edwards, C.A., Grove, T.L., Harwood, R.R., and Pierce Colfer, C.J. 1993. The role of agroecology and integrated farming systems in agricultural sustainability. Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment 46: 99121.
12Lal, R. 1991. Soil conservation and biodiversity. In Hawksworth, D.L. (ed.). The Biodiversity of Microorganisms and Invertebrates: its Role in Sustainable Agriculture. CAB International, Wallingford, UK. P. 89104.
13Lee, K.E. 1991. The diversity of soil organisms.In Hawksworth, D.L. (ed.). The Biodiversity of Microorganisms and Invertebrates: its Role in Sustainable Agriculture. CAB International, Wallingford, UK. P. 7387.
14Pimentel, D., Harvey, C., Pesosudarmo, P., Sinclair, K., Kurz, D., McNair, M., Crist, S., Shpritz, L., Fitton, L., and Blair, R. 1995. Environmental and economic costs of soil erosion and conservation benefits. Science 267: 11171123.
15Faeth, P. 1993. Agricultural Policy and Sustainability: Case studies from India, Chile, the Philippines, and the United States. World Resources Institute, Washington, DC.
16Anonymous. 1975. Soil Survey of Rice County, Minnesota. Soil Conservation Service, United States Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC.
17Midwest Regional Climate Center. 2004. Historical climate data: precipitation summary for station 212721 Faribault, MN. (verified July 2004).
18Minnesota Climatology Working Group. 2004. Annual reports of monthly precipitation totals: Rice County, 2003. (verified July 2004).
19Hach Company. 1988. Soil Testing with Common Regional Extractants. Hach Company, Ames, IA.
20Paoletti, M.G. 1999. Using bioindicators based on biodiversity to assess landscape sustainability. Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment 74: 118.
21Bouche, M.B. 1977. Strategies lombriciennes. In Lohm, U. and Persson, T. (eds). Soil organisms as components of ecosystems. Ecological Bulletin (Stockholm) 25:122132.
22Lee, K.E. 1995. Earthworms and sustainable land use. In Hendrix, P. (ed.). Earthworm Ecology and Biogeography. Lewis Publishers, Ann Arbor, MI. P. 215234.
23Brower, J.E., Zar, J.H., von Ende, C.N. 1998. Field and Laboratory Methods for General Ecology. McGraw Hill, Boston, MA.
24Sechtig, A. 2001. QuikChem Method 12-107-04-1-B: Determination of Nitrate in 2M KCl Soil Extracts by Flow Injection Analysis. Lachat Instruments, Milwaukee, WI.
25Liao, N. 2000. QuikChem Method 10-115-01-1-M: Determination of Orthophosphate by Flow Injection Analysis Colorimetry. Lachat Instruments, Milwaukee, WI.
26Pimentel, D. 1980. Handbook of Energy Utilization in Agriculture. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.
27Hall, C.W. 1984. The role of energy in world agriculture and food availability. In Pimentel, D. and Hall, C.W. (eds). Food and Energy Resources. Academic Press, New York.
28SAS Institute 1999. StatView Reference. SAS Publishing, Cary, NC.
29Caporali, F. and Onnis, A. 1992. Validity of rotation as an effective agroecological principle for a sustainable agriculture. Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment 41: 101113.
30Lampuerlanés, J. and Cantero-Martínez, C. 2003. Soil bulk density and penetration resistance under different tillage and crop management systems, and their relationship with barley root growth. Agronomy Journal 95: 526536.
31Parton, W.J. and Rasmussen, P.E. 1994. Long-term effects of crop management in wheat fallow. II. CENTURY model simulations. Soil Science Society of America Journal 58: 530536.
32Phillips, R.E., Blevins, R.L., Thomas, G.W., Fyre, W.W., Phillips, S.H. 1980. No-tillage agriculture. Science 208: 11081113.
33Holland, J.M. 2004. The environmental consequences of adopting conservation tillage in Europe: reviewing the evidence. Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment 103:(1): 125.
34Karlen, D.L., Stott, D.E. 1994. A framework for evaluating physical and chemical indicators of soil quality. In Doran, J.W., Coleman, D.C., Bezdicek, D.F., Stewart, B.A. (eds). Defining Soil Quality for a Sustainable Environment. Soil Science Society of America, Madison, WI. 5372.
35Paoletti, M.G. (1999 a) The role of earthworms for assessment of sustainability and as bioindicators. Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment 74: 137155.
36Hendrix, P.F., Parmelee, R.W., Crossley, D.A. Jr, Coleman, D.C., Odum, E.P., Groffman, P.M. 1986. Detritus food webs in conventional and no-tillage agricultural systems. BioScience 26: 374380.
37Paoletti, M.G., Bressan, M. 1996. Soil indicators as bioindicators of human disturbance. Critical Review of Plant Sciences 15:(1): 2162.
38Stinner, B.R., House, G.L. 1990. Arthropods and other invertebrates in conservation-tillage agriculture. Annual Review of Entomology 35: 299318.
39Spain, A.V., Prove, B.G., Hogden, M.J., Lee, K.E. 1990. Seasonal variation in penetration resistance and shear strength of three rainforest soils from northeastern Queensland. Geoderma 47: 7992.
40Lee, K.E., Parkhurst, C.E. 1992. Soil organisms and sustainable productivity. Australian Journal of Soil Research 30: 855892.
41Holloway, J.D., Stork, N.E. 1991. Dimensions of biodiversity: the use of invertebrates as indicators of human impact. In Hawksworth, D.L. (ed.). Biodiversity of Microorganisms and Invertebrates: its Role in Sustainable Agriculture. CAB International, Wallingford, UK. p. 3762.
42Rogn, K., Bakko, E.B. 1996. Comparing the ecology and economics of sustainable and conventional agriculture. St.Olaf College Summer Research.
43Sharpley, A.N. 1993. Assessing phosphorous bioavailability in agricultural soils and runoff. Fertilizer Research 36: 259272.
44Blanchard, P.E., Lerch, R.N. 2000. Watershed vulnerability to losses of agricultural chemicals: interactions of chemistry, hydrology, and land-use. Environmental Science and Technology 34: 33153322.
45Hansen, N.C., Daniel, T.C., Sharpley, A.N., Lemuyon, J.L. 2002. The fate and transport of phosphorous in agricultural systems. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 57: 408417.
46Sharpley, A.N., Smith, S.J., Jones, O.R., Berg, W.A., Coleman, G.A. 1992. The transport of bioavailable phosphorus in agricultural runoff. Journal of Environmental Quality 21: 3035.
47Follett, R.F. Delgado J.A. 2002. Nitrogen fate and transport in agricultural systems. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 57: 6 402407.
48McDowell, R.W., Sharpley, A.N., Condron, L.M., Haygarth, P.M., Brookes, P.C. 2001. Processes controlling phosphorus release to runoff and implications for agricultural management. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems 59: 269284.
49King, L. 1990. Soil nutrient management in the United States. In Edwards, C., Lal, R., Madden, P., Miller, R., House, G. (eds). Sustainable Agricultural Systems, St. Lucie Press, Delray Beach, FL
50Pimentel, D. 1984. Energy flow in the food system. In Pimentel, D., Hall, C.W. (eds). Food and Energy Resources. Academic Press, New York.
51West, T.O., Marland, G. 2002. A synthesis of carbon sequestration, carbon emissions and net carbon flux in agriculture: comparing tillage practices in the United States. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 91: 217232.
52Robertson, G.P., Paul, E.A., Harwood, R.R. 2000. Greenhouse gases in intensive agriculture: contributions of individual gases to the radiative forcing of the atmosphere. Science 289: 19221925.
53Stockdill, S.M.J. 1982. Effects of introduced earthworms on the productivity of New Zealand pastures. Pedobiologia 24: 2935.
54Tilman, D. 1999. Global environmental impacts of agricultural expansion: the need for sustainable and efficient practices. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 96: 59956000.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems
  • ISSN: 1742-1705
  • EISSN: 1742-1713
  • URL: /core/journals/renewable-agriculture-and-food-systems
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 55 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 269 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 16th August 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.