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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).

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