Bowles, T. M., A. Jilling, K. Morán-Rivera, J. Schnecker, and A. S. Grandy. 2022. Crop rotational complexity affects plant-soil nitrogen cycling during water deficit. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 166:108552.
One of the biggest environmental challenges facing agriculture is how to both supply and retain nitrogen (N), especially as precipitation becomes more variable with climate change. We used a greenhouse experiment to assess how contrasting histories of crop rotational complexity affect plant-soil-microbe interactions that govern N processes, including during water stress. With higher levels of carbon and N cycling hydrolytic enzymes, higher mineral-associated organic matter N concentrations, and an altered microbial community, soils from the most complex rotation enabled 80% more corn N uptake under two moisture regimes, compared to soil from monoculture corn. Higher levels of plant N likely drove the changes in corn leaf gas exchange, particularly increasing intrinsic water use efficiency by 9% in the most complex rotation. The water deficit increased the standing pool of nitrate 44-fold in soils with a history of complex crop rotations, compared to an 11-fold increase in soils from the corn monoculture. The implications of this difference must be considered in a whole cropping systems and field context. Cycling of 15N-labeled fresh clover residue into soil N pools did not depend on the water regime or rotation history, with 2-fold higher recovery in the mineral vs. particulate organic N pool. In contrast, the water deficit reduced recovery of clover 15N in corn shoots by 37%, showing greater impacts of water deficit on plant N uptake compared to organic N cycling in soil. This study provides direct experimental evidence that long-term crop rotational complexity influences microbial N cycling and availability with feedbacks to plant physiology. Collectively, these results could help explain general observations of higher yields in more complex crop rotations, including specifically during dry conditions.
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