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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICES FOR IMPROVING ORGANIC FARMING IN THE MID-ATLANTIC REGION

Location: Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory

Title: Organic management systems to enhance ecosystem services

Authors
item Cavigelli, Michel
item Mirsky, Steven
item Teasdale, John
item Spargo, John -
item Doran, John

Submitted to: Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: December 11, 2012
Publication Date: January 16, 2013
Citation: Cavigelli, M.A., Mirsky, S.B., Teasdale, J.R., Spargo, J.T., Doran, J.W. 2013. Organic management systems to enhance ecosystem services. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. 28:145-159.

Interpretive Summary: Organic farming has been shown to augment various ecosystems services (soil, water, air quality) compared to conventional tilled systems but the impact of organic farming relative to conventional no-tillage has not been examined critically. We summarized results from 15 years of research at the long-term Farming Systems Project in Beltsville, Maryland in the context of other long-term farming systems projects that also include comparisons between organic and conventional no-tillage systems. We found that soil carbon sequestration and nitrogen fertility can be greater while impact on climate change can be lower in organic systems that use animal manures and cover crops compared to conventional no-tillage systems. However, soil erosion, emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, and labor requirements are or appear to be greater in organic than no-tillage systems. And, crop yields, on average, are lower for organic systems. Ecosystem services provided by organic systems may be improved by expanding crop rotations to include greater crop diversity, improving nutrient management, and reducing tillage intensity and frequency. More diverse crop rotations, especially those that include perennial forages, can reduce weed pressure, economic risk, soil erosion, nitrous oxide emissions, animal manure inputs and soil P loading, while increasing grain yield and soil fertility. Side-dressing animal manures in organic systems may increase corn nitrogen use efficiency and also minimize animal manure inputs. Management practices that reduce tillage frequency and intensity in organic systems are being developed to reduce soil erosion and labor and energy needs. On-going research promises to further augment ecosystem services provided by organic grain cropping systems. Results from this research will be important for organic farmers, farmers considering transitioning to organic, and policymakers and other interested in augmenting ecosystem services provided by all farming systems.

Technical Abstract: Organic grain cropping systems can enhance a number of ecosystem services compared to conventional tilled systems. Recent results from a limited number of long-term agricultural research (LTAR) studies suggest that organic grain cropping systems can also increase several ecosystem services relative to conventional no-till (NT) cropping systems: soil C sequestration and soil N fertility (N mineralization potential) can be greater while global warming potential (GWP) can be lower in organic systems that use animal manures and cover crops compared to conventional NT systems. However, soil erosion from organic systems and nitrous oxide (N2O, a greenhouse gas) emissions from manure-based organic systems appear to be greater than from conventional NT systems, though data are limited. Also, crop yields, on average, continue to be lower and labor requirements greater in organic than in both tilled and NT conventional systems. Ecosystem services provided by organic systems may be improved by expanding crop rotations to include greater crop phenological diversity, improving nutrient management, and reducing tillage intensity and frequency. More diverse crop rotations, especially those that include perennial forages, can reduce weed pressure, economic risk, soil erosion, N2O emissions, animal manure inputs and soil P loading, while increasing grain yield and soil fertility. Side-dressing animal manures in organic systems may increase corn nitrogen use efficiency and also minimize animal manure inputs. Management practices that reduce tillage frequency and intensity in organic systems are being developed to reduce soil erosion and labor and energy needs. On-going research promises to further augment ecosystem services provided by organic grain cropping systems.

Last Modified: 10/1/2014
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