2021 journal article
Multispecies cover cropping promotes soil health in no-tillage cropping systems of North Carolina
JOURNAL OF SOIL AND WATER CONSERVATION, 76(3), 263–275.
Moving agricultural production systems toward a greater level of soil health is needed for sustainability. Conservation agricultural systems utilizing no or minimum tillage are an important step forward, but enhancing carbon (C) inputs with diverse cover crops and facilitating biologically active nitrogen (N) cycling are also needed. Summer cash-crop systems, particularly in the warm-humid region of the southeastern United States, may benefit from multispecies winter cover cropping if sufficient biomass were produced. We implemented a research and demonstration project utilizing multispecies cover cropping in 15 counties of North Carolina during 2015 to 2019 to assess biomass production and its effect on surface-soil properties. Winter cover crop biomass production was variable among locations, but exceeded 3,790 kg ha–1 in one-third of trials. Nitrogen contained in aboveground cover crop biomass exceeded 60 kg ha–1 in the upper third of trials. Of 30 soil properties measured in each site-year (n = 31) at depths of 0 to 5 and 5 to 15 cm, soil-test biological activity, C mineralization during 24 days, total soil N, and Mehlich-III phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) were most consistently affected when comparing multispecies cover cropping with either no or single-species cover cropping. Despite relatively short duration of evaluations (i.e., mostly one to two years), we were able to elucidate that winter multispecies cover cropping has potential to improve soil health conditions in the region. Soil-test biological activity demonstrated the living nature of soil and was sensitive to conservation agricultural management. The support of a hands-on farmer and adviser network encouraged success.