The long-term goal of my work is to improve fertility management on organic and sustainable farms by providing farmers with information and recommendations to enable them to better utilize soil biological processes. To achieve this goal, for this project I will focus on the following objectives:
Objective 1. Quantify the effects of the cover crop and tillage practices on soil microarthropod communities, soil microbial activity, soil and plant tissue nitrogen and carbon pools, and crop yield.
Objective 2. Quantify the impact of soil microarthropods on microbial nutrient cycling and crop productivity under different organic crop production practices.
The purpose of my research is to elucidate the functional roles of soil microarthropods in agroecosystems, specifically regarding nutrient cycling and plant pathogen suppression and transmission. This research project will expand our understanding of how soil microarthropods impact nutrient cycling, and how specific crop management practices can indirect impact nutrient cycling through direct impacts on the soil microarthropod community. These results will not only be applicable to organic farmers, but will also be beneficial to any farmer that is seeking to making their cropping systems more environmentally sustainable and resource efficient.
An increased understanding of the important functional roles microarthropods have in agroecosystems will enable farmers to harness these ecosystem services and make informed crop management decisions that will lead to more sustainable agroecosystems that use fertilizers more efficiently. This project will advance our understanding of how to manage soil biotic properties, specifically regarding the soil microarthropod communities that mediate multiple soil processes. Increasing the management possibilities surround soil microarthropods will allow farmers strengthen the linkage between soil and plant health, a well-known factor in the long-term sustainability of agroecosystems.
The Integrated Cover Cropping Experiment (ICCE) was designed to test the effect of rolled cereal rye on white mold and weed suppression. The soybeans or dry beans are the main plot treatments, and the sub plot treatments are: 1) no cover crop (control treatment), 2) cereal rye with tillage, and 3) cereal rye mulch. The no cover crop treatment does not have cereal rye planted in the fall and uses shallow tillage to control weeds as needed. The cereal rye with tillage and cereal rye mulch treatments have cereal rye planted in the fall at a rate of 200 kg seed ha-1. The cereal rye with tillage treatment and the no cover crop treatment are both plowed prior to stem elongation in the cereal rye in the spring. The cereal rye mulch treatment is instead mechanically terminated and flattened using a roller-crimper (no soil tillage). Prior to planting the soybeans and dry beans in the spring, poultry manure and potassium sulfate are applied based on needs as determined by soil testing. The current ongoing measurements within this experiment include cereal rye biomass, soybean and dry bean establishment, carpogenic germination of Sclerotinia sclerotiorum, Sclerotinia sclerotiorum ascorporic inoculum density, microclimate conditions, white mold disease incidence, weed suppression, and cash crop performance.
For this research project, I have been building upon this established field experiment to address my objectives. I completed soil sampling events in June 2019 (pre-SARE grant) and October 2019 to measure soil biological metrics (microarthropod community abundance, microbial biomass, microbial enzymes), physical metrics (soil aggregate stability), and chemical metrics (carbon, nitrogen, soil protein).
To measure the microarthropod community we collected three composite soil samples in each plot, each composed of three soil cores collected from randomized locations in the plots. Each composite soil sample was placed on a Berlese funnel and the microarthropods were extracted into 70% ethanol over a 3‐day period. After extraction, the microarthropods will be identified and quantified under a dissecting microscope, however this step has not been completed as of December 2019.
We collected additional soil to send to the Cornell Soil Health Lab for analysis of the soil protein and soil aggregate stability. A hand trowel was used to collect three composite samples in each plot, each composed of a trowel full of soil collected from 3 randomized locations in the plots. Soil was sent to the lab for analysis.
To measure the other soil metrics (microbial biomass, microbial enzymes, soil carbon and nitrogen) one composite soil sample composed of 10 soil cores was collected in each plot. Cores were taken with a soil fertility probe (1.75 cm diameter) to a depth of 15 cm. Microbial biomass was measured using a chloroform (CHCl3) fumigation incubation and extraction. Samples have been extracted from the soil and are currently in storage and will be processed through the total organic carbon/nitrogen analyzer in 2020. Fresh soil was frozen from each soil sampling date to analyzer for microbial enzyme activity, which will be processed in 2020. Microbial enzyme activity will be analyzed using the appropriate microplate assays for each of the following enzymes: B-1, 4-N-acetyl-glucosaminidase, Leucine animo peptidase, and Phenol oxidase.
Rolled cereal rye tissue was collected in June 2019 and again in October 2019 when the beans were harvested. Bean plant tissue was also collected in October 2019 at time of harvest. The plant tissue was dried in oven to remove moisture so the tissue can be ground up and analyzed from carbon and nitrogen content using a combustion elemental analyzer. Yield data was collected for the bean crops at time of harvest.
I am currently in the sample processing phase from the 2019 field season, therefore the only results to report as of now are the soil protein and soil aggregate stability results. Soil protein had no significant differences between any treatments.
Soil aggregate stability was affected by an interaction between the cover crop treatment and bean type. Within the dry bean treatments, the no rye-plowed plots had significantly lower aggregate stability that the other cover crop treatments. Within the soybean treatments, the no-till rye plots had significantly higher aggregate stability than the other cover crop treatments. As anticipated, for both the dry beans and soybeans we found that reducing tillage and adding a cover crop increased soil aggregate stability. It is interesting is how quickly soil aggregate stability changed in this experiment. Prior to this experiment the field had been treated the same for many years, so it is presumed that the soil aggregate stability would have been similar across the entire field. Since the soil aggregate stability changed in the experiment plots significantly in one year, this suggests that even incorporating just one season of reduced tillage and cover cropping into a farmer’s rotation can help to improve soil aggregate stability.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Education and outreach from this project have not begun, since we are still in the sample processing stage.
This project has the potential to contribute to future sustainability by informing farmers how to best steward their soil to promote a well-functioning agroecosystem that is less reliant on external inputs. Improved soil functioning has the potential to reduce external inputs that can have environmental consequences (fertilizers, pesticides) and can cause economic strain to farm operations.
Currently, since we are still in the sample processing phase, my adviser and I have not reflected upon the results of this project at this point.