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ARS Home » Plains Area » Lubbock, Texas » Cropping Systems Research Laboratory » Wind Erosion and Water Conservation Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #333315

Research Project: Improving the Productivity and Climatic Resilience of Agricultural Production Systems in Semiarid and Arid Ecosystems

Location: Wind Erosion and Water Conservation Research

Title: Lasting effects of soil health improvements with management changes in cotton-based cropping systems in a sandy soil

Author
item Acosta-martinez, Veronica
item Cotton, Jon

Submitted to: Biology and Fertility of Soils
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 3/7/2017
Publication Date: 3/10/2017
Citation: Acosta Martinez, V., Cotton, J.E. 2017. Lasting effects of soil health improvements with management changes in cotton-based cropping systems in a sandy soil. Biology and Fertility of Soils. 53(4):1-14. doi:10.1007/s00374-017-1192-2.

Interpretive Summary: In the Texas High Plains, historic practices have been dominated by intensively tilled monoculture cotton (Gossypium hirsutum L.) systems, which while profitable and well adapted to the semi-arid climate have decreased inherently low soil organic matter and increased wind erosion potential. Phase I of this study (already published) was designed to improve the health of this degraded semiarid soil using systems incorporating up to three times more biomass (2003-2007) by rotating cotton (primary cash crop) with grain sorghum (secondary cash crop) with and without a rye winter cover crop (Ctn-Rye-Sg and Sg-Ctn) or with a system that involved no cash crop and returned maximum biomass to the soil (3 times residue vs Cont. Ctn) with a sorghum x sudangrass hybrid with winter rye cover (SSd-Rye). Phase II began after five years and included re-introducing or increasing the frequency of cotton (i.e., cotton was planted 2 out of 3 years in SSd-Rye and was grown for 3 years in Ctn-Rye-Sg) to test if the increases in soil health microbial indicators (e.g., microbial biomass, enzyme activities (EAs) and fungi vs. bacterial markers) during Phase I would be maintained and if cotton yields would be improved. During the first year of Phase II (2008) all plots were planted in cotton, and higher cotton yields (73-137%) were found under SSd-Rye compared to the other systems. The most significant trend with reintroduction of cotton and increase in tillage the first year of Phase II was a reduction in fungal indicators with a lower ratio of fungi to bacteria and much lower arbuscular mycorrhiza (15.1 to 3.98%), and less biogeochemical cycling potential of soil according to several enzyme activities (by as much as 50%). Our results support in part our hypothesis that the microbial communities of sandy soils would have a low resistance or high sensitivity to disturbance if management is changed. The systems were partially resilient, however, in that levels of microbial biomass never were reduced to that of continuous cotton in the 3-year timeframe of this study.

Technical Abstract: The soil microbial component is essential for sustainable agricultural systems and soil health. This study evaluated the lasting impacts of 5 years of soil health improvements from alternative cropping systems compared to intensively tilled continuous cotton (Cont. Ctn) in a low organic matter sandy soil. Our previous study (phase I) evaluated soil health microbial indicators (microbial biomass, community composition and enzyme activities) during 5 years (2003-2007) when more plant residue was returned to the soil by rotating cotton (primary cash crop) with grain sorghum (secondary cash crop) with and without a rye winter cover crop (Ctn-Rye-Sg and Sg-Ctn) or with a system that involved no cash crop and returned maximum biomass to the soil (3 times residue vs Cont. Ctn) with a sorghum x sudangrass hybrid with winter rye cover (SSd-Rye). The current study (phase II) addressed what happens to the microbial component (same microbial indicators) once the management is changed to more cotton production the following 3 years (i.e., cotton was planted 2 out of 3 years in SSd-Rye and was grown for 3 years in Ctn-Rye-Sg). During the first year of phase II (2008), all plots were planted in cotton, and higher cotton yields in SSd-Rye (108–150%) corresponded to microbial trends found in the original rotations (SSd-Rye > Sg-Ctn = Ctn-Rye-Sg). In regard to microbial indicators, the most significant trends with reintroduction of cotton and increase in tillage were a reduction in fungal FAME (fatty acid methyl esters) indicators with a lower ratio of fungi to bacteria and much lower AMF (15.1 to 3.98% of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi), and less biogeochemical cycling potential of soil according to several enzyme activities (by as much as 50%). At the end of phase II (2010), Ctn-Rye-Sg and SSd-Rye were still found to have higher microbial biomass and enzyme activities (1.5 times both measurements except for phosphodiesterase) compared to continuous cotton. This study demonstrates the vulnerability of microbial communities in sandy soils, which requires agroecosystems that will support biomass incorporation (e.g., sorghum and cover crops) when possible in order to sustain essential functions and overall soil health.