Research Article

Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems

, Volume 88, Issue 2, pp 299-313

First online:

Management implications of conservation tillage and poultry litter use for Southern Piedmont USA cropping systems

  • Dinku M. EndaleAffiliated withUSDA-ARS, J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center Email author 
  • , Harry H. SchombergAffiliated withUSDA-ARS, J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center
  • , Michael B. JenkinsAffiliated withUSDA-ARS, J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center
  • , Dory H. FranklinAffiliated withUSDA-ARS, J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center
  • , Dwight S. FisherAffiliated withUSDA-ARS, J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center

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Conservation tillage and judicious use of animal manures as fertilizers can make significant contributions for sustainable food production in the twenty-first century. Identifying and understanding the many interactions occurring within agricultural systems is fundamental for accomplishing this feat. This paper synthesizes 14 years of research results from a study that began in the early 1990s in which researchers from USDA-ARS and the University of Georgia investigated cropping system influences on nutrient management under natural rainfall. Increases in C and N with no-till resulted in improved soil structure that increased infiltration rate and soil water availability. Biological activity as indicated by earthworms was greater with no-till and poultry litter (PL). In all but the very driest year, yields of cotton and corn increased on average 10–27% with no-till and 32–42% with combination of no-till and PL. On the other hand soil nutrient accumulation, particularly P and Zn from long-term use of poultry litter in corn production, reached excessive levels and could present environmental risks. Drainage increased in no-till raising the risk of leaching of nutrients into the soil profile. However, runoff decreased in no-till and the presence of a rye cover crop during the winter reduced the leaching losses of N compared to no cover crop. During cotton production under relative drought, no-till and poultry litter led to somewhat elevated dissolved phosphorus concentration in runoff, and fluometuron was detected in runoff and drainage while pendimethalin was not. Fecal indicator bacteria (Escherichia coli and fecal enterococci), and the hormones estradiol and testosterone were observed in drainage and runoff but concentrations were similar across all treatments. By conducting the study for an extended period under natural environmental conditions, we were able to highlight real risks and potentials of the contrasting cropping systems. While 6 out of 14 years of relative drought might have limited the water quality response of treatments, such droughts are common features of the weather pattern in the region. Even then, use of no-till as the predominant tillage system was supported by improved yields. Fertilizer management, especially crop N need-based use of PL, requires closer monitoring to insure that production advantages of no-till and poultry litter are not offset by concerns with environmental risks. Long-term research requires sustained resource inputs to answer critical questions of environmental risk and emerging unknown issues.


Conventional tillage Corn Cotton No-till Organic matter Runoff Soil quality Water quality