Soil microbial diversity and activity linked to crop yield and quality in a dryland organic wheat production system

Nicole E. Tautges, Tarah S. Sullivan, Catherine L. Reardon, Ian C. Burke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


One of the primary goals of organic agriculture is increasing soil quality through the enhancement of soil biological diversity and activity. Greater soil microbial activity and diversity increase soil organic matter turnover and contribute to soil fertility, one of the main challenges associated with organic management. The objectives of this study were to 1) compare soil microbial abundance and activity between organic and conventional cropping systems, and 2) explore connections between soil microbial community indicators and crop productivity in organic and conventional winter wheat (Triticum aestivum)/spring wheat/winter pea (Pisum sativum) rotations. Soil and plant tissue was sampled following six years of organic and conventional management, and soil was analyzed for microbial abundance and activity. Fungal and bacterial abundance, soil enzyme activity, and soil organic carbon (C) were greater in the organic system than in the conventional system, and all four measures were positively correlated. Community-level physiological profiling (CLPP) indicated that C substrate utilization was greater in the organic than in the conventional system, though bacterial T-RFLP data did not demonstrate different community structure between systems, suggesting that management type affected bacterial community function, but not structure. Fungal T-RFLP results indicated that fungal community structure was different between the organic and conventional systems. Hay yield and tissue nitrogen (N) were greater in the organic system, and were positively correlated with fungal and bacterial abundance, but grain yield and protein were greater in the conventional system. The results of this study indicate that management type (organic vs. conventional) has implications for microbial abundance and microbial community function, and that differences in soil microbial abundance and activity likely impact crop yields and N uptake.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)258-268
Number of pages11
JournalApplied Soil Ecology
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors would like to thank Shane Hetrick, Jeanene DeAvila, and Elizabeth Torres for their technical expertise and assistance in the lab. Also, thanks to the anonymous reviewers whose comments improved this manuscript. Funding for the project was provided by USDA-NIFA Organic Agricultural Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) grant 2009-51300-05578 .

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Elsevier B.V.


  • Carbon substrate utilization
  • Grain yield
  • Microbial abundance
  • Nitrogen uptake
  • Soil enzyme activity
  • T-RFLP


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