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Cover cropping and no-tillage improve soil health in an arid irrigated cropping system in California’s San Joaquin Valley, USA

Randal J. Southard, Anil Shrestha, Kate M. Scow, Radomir Schmidt, Daniel S. Munk, Jeffrey P. Mitchell, Konrad Mathesius, Richard L. Haney, William R. Horwath | January 3rd, 2017

The concept of soil health has attracted considerable attention during the past two decades, but few studies have focused on the effects on soil health of long-term soil management in arid irrigated environments. We investigated the effects of cover cropping and no-till management on soil physical and chemical properties during a 15-year experiment in California’s San Joaquin Valley (SJV) USA. Our objective was to determine if soil health could be improved by these practices in an annual crop rotation. The impact of long-term no-tillage (NT) and cover cropping (CC) practices, alone and in combination, was measured and compared with standard tillage (ST) with and without cover crops (NO) in irrigated row crops after 15 years of management. Soil aggregation, rates of water infiltration, content of carbon, nitrogen, water extractable organic carbon (WEOC) and organic nitrogen (WEON), residue cover, and biological activity were all increased by NT and CC practices relative to STNO. However, effects varied by depth with NT increasing soil bulk density by 12% in the 0–15 cm depth and 10% in the 15–30 cm depth. Higher levels of WEOC were found in the CC surface (0–5 cm) depth in both spring and fall samplings in 2014. Surface layer (0–15 cm) WEON was higher in the CC systems for both samplings. Tillage did not affect WEON in the spring, but WEON was increased in the NT surface soil layer in the fall. Sampling depth, CC, and tillage affected 1-day soil respiration and a soil health index assessment, however the effects were seasonal, with higher levels found in the fall sampling than in the spring. Both respiration and the soil health index were increased by CC with higher levels found in the 0–5 cm depth than in the 5–15 and 15–30 cm depths. Results indicated that adoption of NT and CC in arid, irrigated cropping systems could benefit soil health by improving chemical, physical, and biological indicators of soil functions while maintaining similar crop yields as the ST system.


agriculture water use and efficiency, Central Valley