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Microbial Shifts Following Five Years of Cover Cropping and Tillage Practices in Fertile Agroecosystems

Metagenomics in agricultural research allows for searching for bioindicators of soil health to characterize changes caused by management practices. Cover cropping (CC) improves soil health by mitigating nutrient losses, yet the benefits depend on the tillage system used. Field studies searching for indicator taxa within these systems are scarce and narrow in their scope. Our goal was to identify bioindicators of soil health from microbes that were responsive to CC (three levels) and tillage (chisel tillage, no-till) treatments after five years under field conditions. We used rRNA gene-based analysis via Illumina HiSeq2500 technology with QIIME 2.0 processing to characterize the microbial communities. Our results indicated that CC and tillage differentially changed the relative abundances (RAs) of the copiotrophic and oligotrophic guilds. Corn–soybean rotations with legume–grass CC increased the RA of copiotrophic decomposers more than rotations with grass CC, whereas rotations with only bare fallows favored stress-tolerant oligotrophs, including nitrifiers and denitrifiers. Unlike bacteria, fewer indicator fungi and archaea were detected; fungi were poorly identified, and their responses were inconsistent, while the archaea RA increased under bare fallow treatments. This is primary information that allows for understanding the potential for managing the soil community compositions using cover crops to reduce nutrient losses to the environment.

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