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Cover crop–based organic rotational no-till soybean production has attracted attention from farmers, researchers, and other agricultural professionals because of the ability of this new system to enhance soil conservation, reduce labor requirements, and decrease diesel fuel use compared to traditional organic production. This system is based on the use of cereal rye cover crops that are mechanically terminated with a roller-crimper to create in situ mulch that suppresses weeds and promotes soybean growth. In this paper, we report experiments that were conducted over the past decade in the eastern region of the United States on cover crop–based organic rotational no-till soybean production, and we outline current management strategies and future research needs. Our research has focused on maximizing cereal rye spring ground cover and biomass because of the crucial role this cover crop plays in weed suppression. Soil fertility and cereal rye sowing and termination timing affect biomass production, and these factors can be manipulated to achieve levels greater than 8,000 kg ha−1, a threshold identified for consistent suppression of annual weeds. Manipulating cereal rye seeding rate and seeding method also influences ground cover and weed suppression. In general, weed suppression is species-specific, with early emerging summer annual weeds (e.g., common ragweed), high weed seed bank densities (e.g. > 10,000 seeds m−2), and perennial weeds (e.g., yellow nutsedge) posing the greatest challenges. Due to the challenges with maximizing cereal rye weed suppression potential, we have also found high-residue cultivation to significantly improve weed control. In addition to cover crop and weed management, we have made progress with planting equipment and planting density for establishing soybean into a thick cover crop residue. Our current and future research will focus on integrated multitactic weed management, cultivar selection, insect pest suppression, and nitrogen management as part of a systems approach to advancing this new production system.
Crop yields can be similar in organic and conventional systems even when weed biomass is greater in organic systems. Greater weed tolerance in organic systems may be due to differences in management-driven soil fertility properties. The goal of this experiment was to determine whether soil collected from a long-term organic cropping system with a diverse crop rotation and organic fertility inputs would support higher soil nitrogen (N) resource partitioning, as indicated by overyielding of corn–weed mixtures, than a cropping system with a less diverse crop rotation and inorganic N inputs. A replacement series greenhouse experiment was conducted using corn : smooth pigweed and corn : giant foxtail proportions of 0 : 1, 0.25 : 0.75, 0.5 : 0.5, 0.75 : 0.25, and 1 : 0 and harvested at 29, 40, or 48 d after experiment initiation (DAI). The monoculture density of corn was 4 plants pot−1 and the monoculture density of each weed species was 36 plants pot−1. Corn was consistently more competitive than both weed species at 40 and 48 DAI when soil inorganic N was limiting to growth. Corn–smooth pigweed mixtures had greater shoot biomass and shoot N content than expected based on the shoot biomass and shoot N content of monocultures (i.e., overyielding) at the onset of soil inorganic N limitation, providing some evidence for N resource partitioning. However, soil management effects on overyielding were infrequent and inconsistent among harvest dates and corn–weed mixtures, leading us to conclude that management-driven soil fertility properties did not affect corn–weed N resource partitioning during the early stages of corn growth.
Organic grain cropping systems can enhance a number of ecosystem services compared with conventional tilled (CT) systems. Recent results from a limited number of long-term agricultural research (LTAR) studies suggest that organic grain cropping systems can also increase several ecosystem services relative to conventional no-till (NT) cropping systems: soil C sequestration and soil N fertility (N mineralization potential) can be greater while global warming potential (GWP) can be lower in organic systems that use animal manures and cover crops compared with conventional NT systems. However, soil erosion from organic systems and nitrous oxide (N2O, a greenhouse gas) emissions from manure-based organic systems appear to be greater than from conventional NT systems, though data are limited. Also, crop yields, on average, continue to be lower and labor requirements greater in organic than in both tilled and NT conventional systems. Ecosystem services provided by organic systems may be improved by expanding crop rotations to include greater crop phenological diversity, improving nutrient management, and reducing tillage intensity and frequency. More diverse crop rotations, especially those that include perennial forages, can reduce weed pressure, economic risk, soil erosion, N2O emissions, animal manure inputs, and soil P loading, while increasing grain yield and soil fertility. Side-dressing animal manures in organic systems may increase corn nitrogen use efficiency and also minimize animal manure inputs. Management practices that reduce tillage frequency and intensity in organic systems are being developed to reduce soil erosion and labor and energy needs. On-going research promises to further augment ecosystem services provided by organic grain cropping systems.
Organic producers in the mid-Atlantic region of the USA are interested in reducing tillage, labor and time requirements for grain production. Cover crop-based, organic rotational no-till grain production is one approach to accomplish these goals. This approach is becoming more viable with advancements in a system for planting crops into cover crop residue flattened by a roller–crimper. However, inability to consistently control weeds, particularly perennial weeds, is a major constraint. Cover crop biomass can be increased by manipulating seeding rate, timing of planting and fertility to achieve levels (>8000 kg ha−1) necessary for suppressing summer annual weeds. However, while cover crops are multi-functional tools, when enhancing performance for a given function there are trade-off with other functions. While cover crop management is required for optimal system performance, integration into a crop rotation becomes a critical challenge to the overall success of the production system. Further, high levels of cover crop biomass can constrain crop establishment by reducing optimal seed placement, creating suitable habitat for seed- and seedling-feeding herbivores, and impeding placement of supplemental fertilizers. Multi-institutional and -disciplinary teams have been working in the mid-Atlantic region to address system constraints and management trade-off challenges. Here, we report on past and current research on cover crop-based organic rotational no-till grain production conducted in the mid-Atlantic region.
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