Fowler, A., B. Basso, F. Maureira, N. Millar, R. Ulbrich, and W. F. Brinton. 2024. Spatial patterns of historical crop yields reveal soil health attributes in US Midwest fields. Scientific Reports 14:465.

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Attaining high crop yields and increasing carbon storage in agricultural soils, while avoiding negative environmental impacts on water quality, soil erosion, and biodiversity, requires accurate and precise management of crop inputs and management practices. The long-term analysis of spatial and temporal patterns of crop yields provides insights on how yields vary in a field, with parts of field constantly producing either high yields or low yields and other parts that fluctuate from one year to the next. The concept of yield stability has shown to be informative on how plants translate the effects of environmental conditions (e.g., soil, climate, topography) across the field and over the years in the final yield, and as a valuable layer in developing prescription maps of variable fertilizer rate inputs. Using known relationships between soil health and crop yields, we hypothesize that areas with measured constantly low yield will return low carbon to the soil affecting its heath. On this premises, yield stability zones (YSZ) provide an effective and practical integrative measure of the small-scale variability of soil health on a field relative basis. We tested this hypothesis by measuring various metrics of soil health from commercial farmers’ fields in the north central Midwest of the USA in samples replicated across YSZ, using a soil test suite commonly used by producers and stakeholders active in agricultural carbon credits markets. We found that the use of YSZ allowed us to successfully partition field-relative soil organic carbon (SOC) and soil health metrics into statistically distinct regions. Low and stable (LS) yield zones were statistically lower in normalized SOC when compared to high and stable (HS) and unstable (US) yield zones. The drivers of the yield differences within a field are a series of factors ranging from climate, topography and soil. LS zones occur in areas of compacted soil layers or shallow soils (edge of the field) on steeper slopes. The US zones occurring with high water flow accumulation, were more dependent on topography and rainfall. The differences in the components of the overall soil health score (SHS) between these YSZ increased with sample depth suggesting a deeper topsoil in the US and HS zones, driven by the accumulation of water, nutrients, and carbon downslope. Comparison of the field management provided initial evidence that zero tillage reduces the magnitude of the variance in SOC and soil health metrics between the YSZ.

DOI: 10.1038/s41598-024-51155-y

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