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Long-term use of cover crops and no-till shift soil microbial community life strategies in agricultural soil

Reducing tillage and growing cover crops, widely recommended practices for boosting soil health, have major impacts on soil communities. Surprisingly little is known about their impacts on soil microbial functional diversity, and especially so in irrigated Mediterranean ecosystems. In long-term experimental plots at the West Side Research and Extension Center in California’s Central Valley, we characterized soil microbial communities in the presence or absence of physical disturbance due to tillage, in the presence or absence of cover crops, and at three depths: 0–5, 5–15 and 15–30 cm. This characterization included qPCR for bacterial and archaeal abundances, DNA sequencing of the 16S rRNA gene, and phylogenetic estimation of two ecologically important microbial traits (rRNA gene copy number and genome size). Total (bacterial + archaeal) diversity was higher in no-till than standard till; diversity increased with depth in no-till but decreased with depth in standard till. Total bacterial numbers were higher in cover cropped plots at all depths, while no-till treatments showed higher numbers in 0–5 cm but lower numbers at lower depths compared to standard tillage. Trait estimates suggested that different farming practices and depths favored distinctly different microbial life strategies. Tillage in the absence of cover crops shifted microbial communities towards fast growing competitors, while no-till shifted them toward slow growing stress tolerators. Across all treatment combinations, increasing depth resulted in a shift towards stress tolerators. Cover crops shifted the communities towards ruderals–organisms with wider metabolic capacities and moderate rates of growth. Overall, our results are consistent with decreasing nutrient availability with soil depth and under no-till treatments, bursts of nutrient availability and niche homogenization under standard tillage, and increases in C supply and variety provided by cover crops. Understanding how agricultural practices shift microbial abundance, diversity and life strategies, such as presented here, can assist with designing farming systems that can support high yields, while enhancing C sequestration and increasing resilience to climate change.

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