Date of this Version
Published in Geoderma 409 (2022) 115594
Improving soil health is critical to reversing trends of soil degradation and is of increasing interest to a range of stakeholders including policymakers, agricultural industry leaders, food companies, and farmers. Crop and soil management practices focused on ecological functions can be effective in restoring fundamental biological, chemical and physical soil properties. The call for ecological intensification of agricultural systems has the potential to improve soil health and input-use efficiency. In this study, we developed a framework to classify spatial and temporal ecological intensification with soil health practices: tillage, crop rotation, cover crop, organic amendment, and crop-livestock integration. We applied this framework in a statewide soil health project featuring collaboratively designed on-farm research. We found that ecological intensification affected all properties commonly used in soil health assessments, but the sensitivity of different practices to impact changes varied among the soil physical, chemical and biological properties. The use of cover crops had the greatest impact on driving changes in soil properties, in particular those closely related to organic matter and carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) dynamics. Soil-test biological activity and its association with soil-test predicted N release in cropping systems intensified with cover crop use was found to reduce predicted nutrient fertility needs substantially compared to less intensified systems. Evaluating the potential of existing agricultural systems to undergo ecological intensification at a farm scale provides insights about management options to enhance soil health, particularly in regards to nutrient cycling, biological activity, and input-use efficiency.