The duration of the vegetation cover, key to improve cereal production

An international team in which the Rey Juan Carlos University, the University of Alicante and the CSIC participate has verified that the proportion of time with crop coverage, regardless of their diversity, has a positive effect on the agronomic performance of European cereal fields , its edaphic biodiversity and its ability to provide services such as climate regulation or soil fertility.

Irene Vega / Writing

The study, published in the prestigious magazine Nature Food, suggests that increasing the duration of the vegetation cover using commercial crops, cover crops and / or forages, is an appropriate practice to increase the production and functionality of European cereal fields “In this work, we have used a European network of 155 cereal fields distributed in Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany and Sweden, where we have measured cereal yield, soil biodiversity (fungi, bacteria, archaea and protists) and more than twenty variables related to soil functionality, as well as surveyed farmers to determine the intensity of management ”, explains Dr. David Sánchez-Pescador, postdoctoral researcher at the Rey Juan Carlos University and participant in the study.

The results of this research show that the duration of the vegetation cover in cereal fields is as important as the type of soil, the climate and the intensity of agronomic management, through fertilization, tillage or pesticides. However, the duration of this cover is limited by the climatic conditions of the area, for example, low precipitation in southern Spain or low temperatures in northern Sweden. This study shows the agronomic and environmental benefits that can be derived from considering this simple practice through, for example, different varieties of cereal and / or cover crops.

Development of sustainable practices to increase production

Today’s agriculture faces the enormous challenge of increasing production in the face of growing demand, while limiting the practices that have been used so far and that have a high environmental cost. For example, crop expansion, inorganic fertilization, pesticides or soil tillage. In this context, there is much interest in developing sustainable practices that allow to increase the production of croplands while maintaining their capacity to provide multiple key ecosystem services, such as soil fertility and climate regulation. One of the most promising approaches at present to achieve this dual objective is to promote biodiversity in agricultural fields, both of crops and of soil microorganisms. “In this study we have used an approach inspired by ecosystem ecology to investigate the relationships between crop diversity, soil microbial diversity, agronomic yield and soil functionality, and we have done so using cereal fields with different management , types of soil and climatic conditions ”, affirms Dr. Pablo García-Palacios, Ramón y Cajal researcher at the Institute of Agrarian Sciences of the CSIC and participant in the study.

This work also highlights the importance of collaboration between scientists from different disciplines, such as agronomy, ecology, microbiology, and biogeochemistry to carry out cutting-edge research capable of responding to the challenges facing today’s agriculture. “This study is part of the European project Digging_Deeper, funded by the BiodivERsa COFUND program and which includes more than 20 researchers from five European countries. The establishment of this type of European consortium allows studies to be carried out on a continental scale, which are essential to inform political decisions that affect the management of agricultural areas within the European Union ”, says Fernando T. Maestre, distinguished researcher at the University of Alicante and principal investigator of the Spanish team that has participated in this project.

Trial of varieties of cereal crops in the Experimental Farm of Las Torres – Tomejil (Andalusian Institute of Agricultural and Fisheries Research and Training, Seville).
Photograph by David Sánchez Pescador.

Bibliographic reference of the article:

“Garland G, Edlinger A, Banerjee S, Degrune F, García-Palacios P, Pescador DS, Herzog C, Romdhane S, Saghai A, Spor A, Wagg C, Hallin S, Maestre FT, Philippot L, Rillig MC and van der Heijden M. Nature Food. Crop cover is more important than rotational diversity for soil multifunctionality and cereal yields in European cropping systems. Doi: 10.1038/s43016-020-00210-8”


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