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Legume-based cropping systems have reduced carbon and nitrogen losses


In agricultural systems, optimization of carbon and nitrogen cycling through soil organic matter can improve soil fertility and yields while reducing negative environmental impact. A basic tenet that has guided the management of soil organic matter for decades has been that equilibrium levels of carbon and nitrogen are controlled by their net input and that qualitative differences in these inputs are relatively unimportant1,2,3. This contrasts with natural ecosystems in which there are significant effects of species composition and litter quality on carbon and nitrogen cycling4,5. Here we report the net balances of carbon and nitrogen from a 15-year study in which three distinct maize/soybean agroecosystems are compared. Quantitative differences in net primary productivity and nitrogen balance across agroecosystems do not account for the observed changes in soil carbon and nitrogen. We suggest that the use of low carbon-to-nitrogen organic residues to maintain soil fertility, combined with greater temporal diversity in cropping sequences, significantly increases the retention of soil carbon and nitrogen, which has important implications for regional and global carbon and nitrogen budgets, sustained production, and environmental quality.

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Figure 1: Soil carbon levels in 1981 (left-hand bars) and 1995 (right-hand bars); means ± s.e.m. are shown.
Figure 2: Cumulative nitrate leaching during 1991 to 1995.
Figure 3: Comparison of cumulative nitrogen inputs and exports and changes in soil nitrogen storage after 15 years.


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We thank M. Cavigelli, J. Easter, P. Groffman, D. Jenkinson, P. Matson and S. Snapp for comments on the manuscript; J. Duxbury for discussions of 13C natural abundance methodology; and E. A. Paul for funding and analytical support of lysimeters and the NO3 leaching component. This work was funded in part by USDA-ARS.

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Correspondence to L. E. Drinkwater.

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Drinkwater, L., Wagoner, P. & Sarrantonio, M. Legume-based cropping systems have reduced carbon and nitrogen losses. Nature 396, 262–265 (1998).

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