Do corn-soybean rotations enhance decomposition of soil organic matter?



Corn and soybean crops are often grown in rotation, requiring lower nitrogen (N) inputs than continuous corn. However, soil organic carbon (C) may be declining in corn-soybean systems despite sustained residue inputs. We asked whether corn-soybean rotations increase decomposition of litter and soil C as compared with continuous corn.


We incubated soils from a long-term field experiment including continuous corn and both phases of the corn-soybean rotation. Soils were amended with corn litter, soybean litter, or no litter. We measured natural abundance C stable isotopes (δ13C values) in respiration and microbial biomass to partition C sources.


Addition of soybean litter increased microbial biomass while corn did not. However, corn litter addition consistently increased (i.e., primed) soil C decomposition while soybean litter did not. Soils most recently planted to corn following soybeans had the greatest soil C decomposition and N mineralization irrespective of litter addition, and they decomposed corn litter faster and had a faster priming response than the other treatments.


Our data support the hypothesis that alternating inputs of N-rich soybean litter and relatively N-poor corn litter could enhance litter and SOC decomposition by driving microbial growth following the soybean phase and stimulating priming following the corn phase. Increased decomposition and N mineralization from litter and SOC in corn-soybean rotations may contribute to the soybean N credit but could also contribute to longer-term soil C and N declines, consistent with field data.

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Funding was provided in part by the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa. We thank Matt Liebman for thoughtful comments and for facilitating access to the field site, Carlos Tenesaca for assistance in the lab, the McNair Scholars program for providing research support for ARM, and two anonymous reviewers who provided thoughtful and useful comments.

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AER, ARM, and SJH conceived the research and designed and performed the experiment. SJH analyzed data and wrote the paper, with contributions from AER.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Steven J. Hall.

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Hall, S.J., Russell, A.E. & Moore, A.R. Do corn-soybean rotations enhance decomposition of soil organic matter?. Plant Soil 444, 427–442 (2019).

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  • Carbon-use efficiency
  • Carbon stable isotopes
  • Microbial biomass
  • Nitrogen mineralization
  • Priming
  • Soybean nitrogen credit