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Potential Long-Term Benefits of No-Tillage and Organic Cropping Systems for Grain Production and Soil Improvement

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There have been few comparisons of the performance of no-tillage cropping systems vs. organic farming systems, particularly on erodible, droughty soils where reduced-tillage systems are recommended. In particular, there is skepticism whether organic farming can improve soils as well as conventional no-tillage systems because of the requirement for tillage associated with many organic farming operations. A 9-yr comparison of selected minimum-tillage strategies for grain production of corn (Zea mays L.), soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr.], and wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) was conducted on a sloping, droughty site in Beltsville, MD, from 1994 to 2002. Four systems were compared: (i) a standard mid-Atlantic no-tillage system (NT) with recommended herbicide and N inputs, (ii) a cover crop-based no-tillage system (CC) including hairy vetch (Vicia villosa Roth) before corn, and rye (Secale cereale L.) before soybean, with reduced herbicide and N inputs, (iii) a no-tillage crownvetch (Coronilla varia L.) living mulch system (CV) with recommended herbicide and N inputs, and (iv) a chisel-plow based organic system (OR) with cover crops and manure for nutrients and postplanting cultivation for weed control. After 9 yr, competition with corn by weeds in OR and by the crownvetch living mulch in CV was unacceptable, particularly in dry years. On average, corn yields were 28 and 12% lower in OR and CV, respectively, than in the standard NT, whereas corn yields in CC and NT were similar. Despite the use of tillage, soil combustible C and N concentrations were higher at all depth intervals to 30 cm in OR compared with that in all other systems. A uniformity trial was conducted from 2003 to 2005 with corn grown according to the NT system on all plots. Yield of corn grown on plots with a 9-yr history of OR and CV were 18 and 19% higher, respectively, than those with a history of NT whereas there was no difference between corn yield of plots with a history of NT and CC. Three tests of N availability (corn yield loss in subplots with no N applied in 2003-2005, presidedress soil nitrate test, and corn ear leaf N) all confirmed that there was more N available to corn in OR and CV than in NT. These results suggest that OR can provide greater long-term soil benefits than conventional NT, despite the use of tillage in OR. However, these benefits may not be realized because of difficulty controlling weeds in OR.
Teasdale, J.R. , Coffman, C.B. , Mangum, R.W.
Includes references
Agronomy journal 2007 Sept-Oct, v. 99, no. 5
Journal Articles, USDA Authors, Peer-Reviewed
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