Articles | Volume 2, issue 4
Original research article
02 Nov 2016
Original research article |  | 02 Nov 2016

Soil microbial biomass and function are altered by 12 years of crop rotation

Marshall D. McDaniel and A. Stuart Grandy

Abstract. Declines in plant diversity will likely reduce soil microbial biomass, alter microbial functions, and threaten the provisioning of soil ecosystem services. We examined whether increasing temporal plant biodiversity in agroecosystems (by rotating crops) can partially reverse these trends and enhance soil microbial biomass and function. We quantified seasonal patterns in soil microbial biomass, respiration rates, extracellular enzyme activity, and catabolic potential three times over one growing season in a 12-year crop rotation study at the W. K. Kellogg Biological Station LTER. Rotation treatments varied from one to five crops in a 3-year rotation cycle, but all soils were sampled under a corn year. We hypothesized that crop diversity would increase microbial biomass, activity, and catabolic evenness (a measure of functional diversity). Inorganic N, the stoichiometry of microbial biomass and dissolved organic C and N varied seasonally, likely reflecting fluctuations in soil resources during the growing season. Soils from biodiverse cropping systems increased microbial biomass C by 28–112 % and N by 18–58 % compared to low-diversity systems. Rotations increased potential C mineralization by as much as 53 %, and potential N mineralization by 72 %, and both were related to substantially higher hydrolase and lower oxidase enzyme activities. The catabolic potential of the soil microbial community showed no, or slightly lower, catabolic evenness in more diverse rotations. However, the catabolic potential indicated that soil microbial communities were functionally distinct, and microbes from monoculture corn preferentially used simple substrates like carboxylic acids, relative to more diverse cropping systems. By isolating plant biodiversity from differences in fertilization and tillage, our study illustrates that crop biodiversity has overarching effects on soil microbial biomass and function that last throughout the growing season. In simplified agricultural systems, relatively small increases in crop diversity can have large impacts on microbial community size and function, with cover crops appearing to facilitate the largest increases.

Short summary
Modern agriculture is dominated by monoculture crop production, having negative effects on soil biology. We used a 12-year crop rotation experiment to examine the effects of increasing crop diversity on soil microorganisms and their activity. Crop rotations increased microbial biomass by up to 112 %, and increased potential ability to supply nitrogen as much as 58 %, compared to monoculture corn. Collectively, our findings show that soil health is increased when crop diversity is increased.