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ARS Home » Midwest Area » Columbia, Missouri » Cropping Systems and Water Quality Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #394675

Research Project: Sustainable Intensification of Cropping Systems on Spatially Variable Landscapes and Soils

Location: Cropping Systems and Water Quality Research

Title: A tale of two fields: management legacy, soil health, and productivity

item SVEDIN, JEFFERY - University Of Missouri
item Kitchen, Newell
item Ransom, Curtis
item Veum, Kristen
item MYERS, ROBERT - University Of Missouri

Submitted to: Agricultural and Environmental Letters
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 8/7/2022
Publication Date: 8/7/2022
Citation: Svedin, J., Kitchen, N.R., Ransom, C.J., Veum, K.S., Myers, R. 2022. A tale of two fields: management legacy, soil health, and productivity. Agricultural and Environmental Letters. 7:e20090.

Interpretive Summary: Private and public organizations promote soil health with the anticipated outcome of long-term crop yield sustainability. Soil health is improved by adopting conservation practices, such as no-till or cover crops or introducing perennials into the rotation. However, typical soil health studies often focus on linking conservation practices to soil health, and not soil health to yield. Farmers and their consultants are left asking “Will yield increase as I improve soil health?” This investigation compared soil health and grain productivity for two side-by-side fields with different management histories. In 2011, both fields were converted to no-till corn-soybean crop production. Prior to 2011 and over several decades, one field had been managed as pasture, and the other in tilled corn-soybean cropping. These two very different management histories on side-by-side fields presented a unique opportunity to demonstrate connections between long-term conservation practices, soil health, and grain productivity. In 2021, ten years after transitioning to no-till grain crop production, soil health properties from the previously pasture field averaged 60% greater than the other field. These soil health benefits translated into a decade of yield improvements for the previously pasture field - averaging 51% and 42% for corn and soybean, respectively. When comparing across fields, all biological indicators of soil health were related to yield. This case study demonstrates the power of perennial systems to improve soil health and that these improvements can last for at least a decade after transitioning to grain crops. Farmers will benefit from these findings that will help them see the relationship between conservation management practices, improving soil health and long-term grain crop productivity.

Technical Abstract: Adjacent fields with contrasting histories present an opportunity to evaluate the legacy of management on soil health (SH) and grain productivity. In 2011, two fields transitioned to no-till grain production. During the previous 25 years, one was pasture (pasture-to-grain; PTG) while the other was annually tilled for grain cropping (long-term grain; LTG). The study objectives were to contrast these two fields relative to SH and productivity. Soil health samples were collected in 2021 to align with yield map data (2011-2021). Over this decade, PTG out-yielded LTG by 46% on average. Metrics of SH for PTG averaged 62% higher than LTG. When examined across fields, SH metrics were related to yield (r2 = 0.46-0.80), but these relationships weakened when assessed within each field. These findings affirm SH indicators are sensitive to the legacy of management and are meaningful indicators of productivity across sites but less informative for within-field variability.