Plant-soil relations may explain why low-external input (LEI) diversified cropping systems are more efficient than their conventional counterparts. This work sought to identify links between management practices, soil quality changes, and root responses in a long-term cropping systems experiment in Iowa where grain yields of 3-year and 4-year LEI rotations have matched or exceeded yield achieved by a 2-year maize (Zea mays L.) and soybean (Glycine max L.) rotation. The 2-year system was conventionally managed and chiselploughed, whereas the 3-year and 4-year systems received plant residues and animal manures and were periodically moldboard ploughed. We expected changes in soil quality to be driven by organic matter inputs, and root growth to reflect spatial and temporal fluctuations in soil quality resulting from those additions. We constructed a carbon budget and measured soil quality indicators (SQIs) and rooting characteristics using samples taken from two depths of all crop-phases of each rotation system on multiple dates. Stocks of particulate organic matter carbon (POM-C) and potentially mineralizable nitrogen (PMN) were greater and more evenly distributed in the LEI than conventional systems. Organic C inputs, which were 58% and 36% greater in the 3-year rotation than in the 4-year and 2-year rotations, respectively, did not account for differences in SQI abundance or distribution. Surprisingly, SQIs did not vary with crop-phase or date. All biochemical SQIs were more stratified (p<0.001) in the conventionally-managed soils. While POM-C and PMN in the top 10 cm were similar in all three systems, stocks in the 10-20 cm depth of the conventional system were less than half the size of those found in the LEI systems. This distribution was mirrored by maize root length density, which was also concentrated in the top 10 cm of the conventionally managed plots and evenly distributed between depths in the LEI systems. The plow-down of organic amendments and manures established meaningful differences in SQIs and extended the rhizosphere of the LEI systems. Resulting efficiencies observed in the LEI grain crops indicate that resource distribution as well as abundance is an important component of soil function that helps explain how LEI systems can maintain similar or greater yields with fewer inputs than achieved by their conventional counterparts.
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