Functional traits in cover crop mixtures: biological nitrogen fixation and multifunctionality.

Published online
31 Jan 2018
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Blesh, J. & Martin, A.
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Cover crop mixtures with complementary plant functional traits including biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) may supply nitrogen (N) to farm fields while simultaneously providing other ecosystem functions such as N retention and weed suppression (i.e., multifunctionality). Understanding variation in these relationships across farms can help advance trait-based research in agroecology and ecological approaches to nutrient management. This on-farm experiment explored the contributions of two- and three-species cover crop mixtures, which combined legumes, brassicas and cool season grasses, to ecosystem functions across a gradient of soil fertility levels driven by farm management history. I evaluated the predictions that functional trait diversity of the cover crops would explain variation in multifunctionality, and that legume biomass and BNF within mixtures would be inversely correlated with indicators of soil N availability from organic matter across the farm gradient. Ecosystem functions varied widely across farms. As expected, functional diversity was a significant predictor of multifunctionality, although the relationship was weak. Cover crop mixtures had significantly greater multifunctionality than a cereal rye monoculture, though not at the highest observed levels of each function, indicating trade-offs among functions. Linear regression models showed that legume biomass and BNF were negatively correlated with soil properties indicative of N availability from soil organic matter, whereas non-legume and weed biomass were positively correlated with other measures of soil fertility. Synthesis and applications. Cover crop mixtures can increase functional diversity within crop rotations. Designing mixtures with complementary plant traits may be particularly effective for increasing multifunctionality and agroecosystem sustainability. On-farm research to understand variation in biological nitrogen fixation, which is both a plant trait and a key ecosystem function, across heterogeneous soil conditions, can inform management of soil fertility based on ecological principles.

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