Impacts of crop rotations and nitrogen fertilizer on soil biological factors in semi-arid Montana
Fouts, Willa Constance
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Evaluating the effects of cropping and fertilizing techniques is key to informing agricultural best practices. We must continue monitoring how we manipulate soils in order to preserve and cultivate high-quality soil ecosystems that can support us in the face of climate change and widespread soil loss and deterioration. We assessed the effects of common agricultural practices in Montana by measuring biological indicators of soil quality in the 18th year of a field plot experiment with 100% and 50% the recommended rate of synthetic nitrogen (N) fertilizer and crop rotations incorporating wheat, fallow, and legumes. The biological indicators measured were four soil extracellular enzymes, potentially mineralizable N (PMN), and microbial biomass. We sampled once in spring 2020 and subsampled in the fall. We also tested whether enzymes and PMN were correlated to aboveground plant residue, which was represented by the sum of the dried plant mass from past two years left on the plots after harvest. Plant residue was positively correlated with the C, N, and S-cycling enzymes and to PMN. The positive correlation between PMN and residue reflects that increased biomass inputs could increase easily mineralizable N. Soil with the high N-rate had a slightly higher geometric mean enzyme activity. This could be from the resulting increase in plant residue. The high N-rate treatment slightly decreased soil PMN but was not affected by crop rotation treatments. Fallow systems had lower enzyme function overall, indicating a lessened fertility and decomposition rate compared to continuously cropped treatments, which keep the soil covered with a crop for more months out of the year. The positive correlations of plant residue, along with the general lower performance of the fallow systems, especially the tilled fallow rotation, support that aboveground biomass inputs are a driver in soil ecosystem function. Continuous no-till crop rotations have increased aboveground plant organic matter, which could increase nutrient cycling and decomposition, and thereby soil biological quality and fertility.