Relationships between field management, soil health, and microbial community composition

Elsevier, Applied Soil Ecology, Volume 144, December 2019, Pages 12-21
Carolyn Mann, Derek Lynch, Sherry Fillmore, Aaron Mills

More meaningful and useful soil health tests are needed to enable better on-farm soil management. Our objective was to assess the relationship between field management, soil health, and soil microbial abundance and composition (phospholipid fatty acid analysis (PLFA)) in soil collected from two fields (farmer-designated ‘good’ versus ‘poor’) across 34 diverse (livestock, grain or vegetable cropping) farms in Maritime Canada. Soil health was measured using soil texture, surface hardness, available water capacity, water stable aggregates, organic matter, soil protein, soil respiration, active carbon, and standard nutrient analysis. All soils were medium to coarse textured (<8% clay). Mixed models analysis showed that both CSHA and PLFA were able to resolve statistical differences between cropping systems, however conventional soil chemical analysis was the only testing method to resolve statistical differences between farmer designated ‘good’ and ‘poor’ fields. Principle component analyses determined management history (rotation over previous three years), but not ‘good’ or ‘poor’ field designation, to be an important determinant of soil health. Water-stable aggregates and soil respiration were positively correlated with all PLFA microbial groups, and negatively correlated with sand, P, Cu and Al. Lower-intensity management (perennial forage, mixed annual-perennial cropping), manure application and low tillage were linked to higher soil respiration, water-stable aggregates, fungi, mycorrhizae, Gram negative bacteria, and lower soil available P. Correlations between CSHA and PLFA shows promise for integrating these two tests for improved soil health assessment.