Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

Scientific Publications


Long-term impacts of high-input annual cropping and unfertilized perennial grass production…

Author: S W Culman, S T DuPont, J D Glover, D H Buckley, G W Fick, H Ferris, T E Crews

Publication: Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, (2009), doi:10.1016/j.agee.2009.11.008


Soil ecosystem properties and processes which simultaneously maintain native fertility and sustain plant yields are of principal interest in sustainable agriculture. Native prairies in Kansas are relevant in this context, as some have been annually harvested for hay for over 75 years with no fertilization or detectable decline in yield or soil fertility. In contrast, annual crop production has resulted in significant reductions in soil fertility and now requires intensive inputs to maintain yields. Soil food webs were compared between hayed native grasslands and adjacent annual croplands in order to determine the long-term effects of these two production systems on soil ecosystem properties. Soil chemical and physical properties, bacterial and nematode community structure and abundance were measured across five paired sites at six depth intervals to 1 m. Soil organic carbon, total nitrogen, and water stable aggregates were all significantly greater in perennial grasslands than in annual croplands to a depth of 60 cm. Microbial biomass carbon was also greater in grasslands than in croplands, and shifts in carbon-13 isotope indicated greater input of new carbon at lower depths in grasslands relative to annual croplands. Bacterial and nitrogen fixing communities in croplands and grasslands were significantly different in the surface 40 cm and nematode community differences persisted through 1 m. Nematode community indices suggested enhanced fungal decomposition pathways, fewer plant-feeding nematodes, and greater food web complexity and stability in grassland soils than in annual cropland soils. These data indicate that perennial grasslands in Kansas, even when annually harvested for decades, support higher levels of soil fertility and structure and more complex biological communities than annual cropping systems.

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