Arable weeds, cover crops, and tillage drive soil microbial community composition in organic cropping systems

Sam E. Wortman, Rhae A. Drijber, Charles A. Francis, John L. Lindquist

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cover crops have traditionally been used to reduce soil erosion and build soil quality, but more recently cover crops are being used as an effective tool in organic weed management. Many studies have demonstrated microbial community response to individual cover crop species, but the effects of mixed species cover crop communities have received less attention. Moreover, the relationship between arable weeds and soil microbial communities is not well understood. The objective of this study was to determine the relative influence of cover crop diversity, early-season weed communities, and tillage on soil microbial community structure in an organic cropping system through the extraction of fatty acid methyl esters (FAMEs). A field experiment was conducted between 2009 and 2011 near Mead, NE where spring-sown mixtures of zero (control), two, and eight cover crop species were included in a sunflower-soybean-corn crop rotation. A mixture of four weed species was planted in all experimental units (excluding the no-cover control), and also included as an individual treatment. Cover crops and weeds were planted in late-March, then terminated in late-May using a field disk or sweep plow undercutter, and main crops were planted within one week of termination. Three (2009) or four (2010-11) soil cores were taken to a depth of 20cm in all experimental units at 45, 32, and 25 days following cover crop termination in 2009, 2010, and 2011, respectively. Total FAMEs pooled across 2009 and 2010 were greatest in the two species mixture-undercutter treatment combination (140.8±3.9nmolg-1) followed by the eight species mixture-undercutter treatment combination (132.4±3.9nmolg-1). Abundance of five (2009 and 2010) and seventeen (2011) FAME biomarkers was reduced in the weedy treatment relative to both cover-cropped treatments and the no-cover control. In 2009 and 2010, termination with the undercutter reduced abundance of most actinomycete biomarkers while termination with the field disk reduced abundance of C18:1(cis11) and iC16:0. Canonical discriminant analysis of the microbial community successfully segregated most cover crop mixture by termination method treatment combinations in 2009 and 2010. Microbial communities were most strongly influenced by the presence and type of early-spring plant communities, as weeds exerted a strong negative influence on abundance of many key microbial biomarkers, including the AMF markers C16:1(cis11) and C18:1(cis11). Weeds may alter soil microbial community structure as a means of increasing competitive success in arable soils, but this relationship requires further investigation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)232-241
Number of pages10
JournalApplied Soil Ecology
StatePublished - Oct 2013


  • Allelopathy
  • Conservation tillage
  • Cover crop mixtures
  • Crop-weed interference
  • Negative soil feedback
  • Organic farming

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Soil Science


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