Climate models predict increasing weather variability, with negative consequences for crop production. Conservation agriculture (CA) may enhance climate resilience by generating certain soil improvements. However, the rate at which these improvements accrue is unclear, and some evidence suggests CA can lower yields relative to conventional systems unless all three CA elements are implemented: reduced tillage, sustained soil cover, and crop rotational diversity. These cost-benefit issues are important considerations for potential adopters of CA. Given that CA can be implemented across a wide variety of regions and cropping systems, more detailed and mechanistic understanding is required on whether and how regionally-adapted CA can improve soil properties while minimizing potential negative crop yield impacts. Across four US states, we assessed short-term impacts of regionally-adapted CA systems on soil properties and explored linkages with maize and soybean yield stability. Structural equation modeling revealed increases in soil organic matter generated by cover cropping increased soil cation exchange capacity, which improved soybean yield stability. Cover cropping also enhanced maize minimum yield potential. Our results demonstrate individual CA elements can deliver rapid improvements in soil properties associated with crop yield stability, suggesting that regionally-adapted CA may play an important role in developing high-yielding, climate-resilient agricultural systems.
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