Integrating cover crop mixtures in the northern Great Plains: an ecological assessment on crop productivity, biodiversity, and temperature and moisture conditions
DuPre, Mary Ellyn
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Cropping systems can impact crop productivity and functioning of biodiversity in the Northern Great Plains, a region heavily reliant on low diversity crop rotations and off-farm inputs, and a region predicted to experience warmer and drier climate scenarios by mid-century. In three complementary studies, I compared the impacts of cover crop mixtures and termination methods on crop productivity and three forms of the associated biodiversity (weeds, soil fungi, and ground beetles), under varying temperature and soil moisture conditions. First, I assessed the impacts of the presence (cover crops and fallow) and composition (cover crop mixtures) of cover crops, termination methods (herbicide, cattle-grazing, and haying), as a function of temperature and soil moisture conditions on crop yields, and weed communities. A 5-species, early-spring mixture generated cooler temperatures, produced more biomass, and suppressed weed biomass under warmer and drier conditions, compared to summer fallow and the 7-species, mid-spring mixture. However, lower soil moisture and subsequent reduced grain yields following the mixtures, especially under warmer and drier conditions, suggests that continuously rotating wheat with mixtures may not be the optimal method to diversify small-grain cropping systems. Second, I assessed the impacts of the presence and composition of cover crops, termination methods and temperature and soil moisture conditions on fungal communities. The early-season cover crop mixture reduced plant pathogen abundance and enhanced AM fungal richness in both the soil and subsequent wheat root crop. The enhancement of beneficial fungi and fewer plant pathogens may be a proxy to better support ecosystem services through the use of cover crop mixtures. Third, I compared ground beetle communities among cover crops treatments and termination methods. Ground beetle activity density was not impacted by termination methods and was greatest in the early-season mixture at the beginning of the growing season and in summer fallow at the end of the growing season, while the mid-season mixture peaked in the middle. Ground beetle diversity peaked in the middle and differed in community composition earlier in the growing season. These results indicate that cover crop mixtures can act as an ecological filter to ground beetle communities to better support pest regulation. Overall, these studies indicate that cover crop mixtures can support crop productivity and the associated biodiversity with changes to temperature and soil moisture, although, with agronomic and ecological trade-offs.