Potential gains in soil carbon and nitrogen as a result of systems perenniality: Insights from on-farm experiments and soil organic matter fractions

Fernanda Souza Krupek, Michael Kaiser, Daren Redfearn, Andrea Basche

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Understanding soil organic matter (SOM) dynamics along gradients of land intensification is critical to guide conservation goals towards improvements in soil carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) storage. In this study, we clarified (a) how the C and N concentrations within SOM fractions of distinct ecological relevance responded to soil management representing a cropland-grassland gradient and (b) how these operationally defined fractions affected soil physicochemical and biological properties. We compared sites with annual row crop rotations with and without cover crops (i.e. cropland soils) with perennial grassland sites (i.e. reference soil) by sampling near-surface soils from statewide on-farm cover crop experiments replicated across four agro-ecoregions in Midwest USA. Soil management had a significant main effect on C and N content in SOM fractions, but responses were site- and fraction-specific. We found that C content of free particulate organic matter and water-extractable organic matter (WEOM) of reference soils were 58%–76% and 31%–59% greater than those of the cropland soils in two of the four sites. Differences in N content of WEOM because of soil management were observed in two of the four sites. These reference soils had between 40% and 60% greater N than cropland soils. Additionally, the N content of aggregate occluded POM (o-POM) of reference soils was three times greater than those of the cropland soils in one of the four sites. Broadly across bulk and SOM fractions, high declines in cropland C and N relative to reference soils were observed in non-irrigated and strip-till sites and coarse-texture soils. Free and o-POM C and N were strongly associated with aggregate stability, water infiltration and enzyme activity, whereas C and N contents of WEOM and MAOM were correlated with soil's ability to hold onto essential nutrients (e.g. calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium). Although the potential of cover crops to drive changes on ecologically meaningful SOM fractions is less pronounced in the short (3 year) term, the findings demonstrate the potential of continuous living cover as an approach to agroecosystem design to improve soil functions closely related to SOM characteristics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere13064
JournalSoil Use and Management
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2024


  • carbon
  • cover crop
  • nitrogen
  • soil organic matter

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Pollution
  • Soil Science


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