Small soil C cycle responses to three years of cover crops in maize cropping systems

A.M. Cates, M.D. Ruark, A.S. Grandy, R.D. Jackson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Cover crops are touted for their ability to improve many ecosystem functions in annual cropping systems. In addition to water and nutrient retention, cover crops may influence C cycling by increasing total C inputs to the agroecosystem, stimulating microbial populations, altering main crop residue decomposition rate, or changing litter chemistry over time. We assessed whether annual (rye) or perennial (bluegrass) cover crops in maize cropping systems influenced maize residue decomposition (litterbags) or microbial communities (shotgun metagenomics) in soil and litter, and whether these cover crops had an effect on microbially active pools of C: particulate organic matter (POM) C and N, or potentially mineralizable C (PMC) after three years of cover crops. Neither cover crop affected litterbag decay rates or microbial composition relative to no cover crop controls. However, both cover crop types increased PMC indicating that microbially-available C was boosted by cover crops. Total POM and POM-N were higher with bluegrass cover crops. These modest effects of cover crops on dynamic soil C pools suggest the generally positive long-term effects of cover crops on soil protection and nutrient retention are related to incremental shifts in quantity, timing and quality of C inputs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number106649
JournalAgriculture, Ecosystems and Environment
StatePublished - Dec 1 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We are grateful to L. Gary Oates, Gregg Sanford, Alex Butz, Mark Walsh, Jimmy Sustachek, Casey Menick, Sarah Lee and Kelsey Johnson for field and laboratory assistance. Scott Greenwood and Karen Moran Rivera at University of New Hampshire assisted with py-GC/MS data collection and interpretation. Funding was provided by the DOE-Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (DOE BER Office of Science DEFC0207ER64494 ). Thank you to the anonymous reviewers who provided thought-provoking questions and commentary leading to a clearer presentation of our ideas. Appendix A

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 Elsevier B.V.


  • Active C
  • Agroecosystems
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Catch crops
  • Decomposition
  • Soil health


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