20 Years in the Making: Rotate Corn for Better Soil Health


Rotating corn with soybean for a year or more tempers the effect, the researchers found.

Soil microbes are living, working barometers of soil health. They are responsible for turning atmospheric nitrogen into forms plants can use, and for releasing nitrogen back into the air. Farm management decisions undoubtedly affect these microscopic workhorses, but, until now, scientists didn’t have a full picture of how crop rotation and tillage influence the soil microbiome.

“Most research on soil microbial health has been done in a lab or greenhouse setting, or in short-term field experiments. Here in Illinois, we have a fantastic opportunity to look at what long-term farm management does to the soil,” says Maria Villamil, associate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois and co-author on a new study published in Science of the Total Environment.

Leveraging a 20-year field experiment, Illinois crop scientists demonstrated significant risks associated with continuous corn rotations, both for the soil microbial community and for environmental health on a larger scale.

“In order to maintain yield levels under continuous corn, more inorganic nitrogen is required, thereby intensifying the nitrogen cycle and causing a dangerous loop,” says Gevan Behnke, lead author on the study and postdoctoral researcher in crop sciences. “The result is acidification and potential increases in nitrogen loss and harmful nitrous oxide emissions.”

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