Living Soil for a Sustainable Future: Assessing the Effects of Cover Crops and Tillage on the Soil Microbial Community and Health

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2016: $10,995.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2018
Grant Recipient: Virginia Tech
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
Dr. Ramon Arancibia
University of Missouri Extension


  • Vegetables: greens (lettuces)


  • Crop Production: cover crops
  • Soil Management: soil microbiology

    Proposal abstract:

    Agricultural land management practices impact the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of soil, including the structure of the community of microorganisms present in the soil. The community of soil microorganisms, in turn, directly influences processes such as nutrient cycling and water infiltration and retention, which ultimately shape the long-term health and fertility of an agricultural landscape. The purpose of this study is to examine the effects of cover cropping and tillage practices on the soil microbial community as well as other various soil physical and biological features that contribute to soil health. We will work with three farmers on the Eastern Shore of Virginia to assess how various practices that they currently utilize (or are considering utilizing) impact the structure and function of the soil microbial community on their farms. More specifically, we will examine how cover crops of varying species diversities (legumes, grasses, brassicas and legume/grass/brassica mixtures) and tillage practices impact on-farm soil microbial diversity and activity, structure and fertility. The results of this study will shed light on how sustainable practices, which are becoming increasingly common in the Southern region, influence soil health and fertility, and the implications for crop productivity. Our results will inform farmers on how to utilize practices that enhance the functioning of the soil microbiome and improve agricultural sustainability.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. To determine how cover crops and tillage practices impact the structure and function of the soil microbial community.
    2. To determine how changes in the microbial composition of the soil relate to soil physical characteristics and fertility (i.e. soil moisture, soil structure, active and total organic matter, nitrogen mineralization rate, and nitrogen fixation).
    3. To determine the influence of changes in microbial community structure and correlated soil characteristics on cash crop growth and production.
    4. To disseminate our findings to a wider audience of farmers, researchers, and others in a practical and meaningful way.
    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.