Soil biological properties, soil losses and corn yield in long-term organic and conventional farming systems

Erika Larsen, Julie Grossman, Joshua Edgell, Greg Hoyt, Deanna Osmond, Shuijin Hu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


Topsoil losses through surface runoff have severe implications for farmers, as well as surrounding ecosystems and waterbodies. However, integrating management systems that enhance soil organic matter (SOM) can stabilize the soil surface from erosion. Little is known about how differences in both tillage and cropping system management affect carbon and subsequent sediment losses in horticultural fields, particularly in the humid climate of the southeast. Research was conducted in the Appalachian Mountains in Mills River, NC on a fine-sandy loam Acrisol from 2010 to 2012 on long-term plots established in 1994. Project objectives included to: (1) quantify labile and total organic matter based on tillage and cropping system practices, (2) determine if relationships exist between SOC ad sediment losses, and (3) determine long-term management and tillage impacts on total organic matter lost via runoff. We hypothesized that organic management and reduced tillage would lead to increased soil carbon, which subsequently reduce losses as soil is stabilized. Organic no tillage and conventional till treatments contained on average 14.34 and 6.80gkg-1 total carbon (TC) respectively, with the organic no till treatments containing twice the quantity of TC and light fraction particulate organic matter (LPOM) in the upper 15cm as compared with the conventionally tilled treatments, and four times the quantity of microbial biomass carbon (MBC). LPOM and HPOM, the heavier fraction of POM, did not differ in the organic till and conventional no till treatments.Data support our hypothesis that organic production in combination with no tillage increases C pools (both total and labile) as compared with tilled conventional plots. However, organic no till treatments produced sweet corn (Zea mays var. saccharata) yields less than 50% of that of conventional treatments, attributed to weed competition and lack of available N. No tillage treatments lost two to four times less soil C via surface runoff than tilled systems. Additionally, we found that as total soil C increased, suspended solids lost through surface runoff decreased. Overall, our results indicate tillage to be an important factor in enhancing soil C and decreasing soil loss through surface runoff.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)37-45
Number of pages9
JournalSoil and Tillage Research
StatePublished - Jun 2014


  • Carbon loss
  • Microbial biomass
  • No tillage
  • Organic agriculture
  • Particulate organic matter
  • Sediment loss


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