Using Legumes to Enhance Sustainability of Sorghum Cropping Systems in the East Texas Pineywoods Ecoregion: Impacts on Soil Nitrogen, Soil Carbon, and Crop Yields



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Overall soil productivity is declining in the U.S. due to loss of soil organic matter (SOM). Decreased SOM lowers soil water storage, reduces water infiltration, slows aggregate formation, and depletes soil of nutrients. In many systems, crop nutrients are replaced by expensive synthetic fertilizers that can lead to environmental concerns. This practice is not economically or environmentally sustainable in the long term. To secure future soil use and crop production, sustainable management practices are needed to prevent further SOM depletion. Incorporating legumes into cropping systems is one alternative that can bolster soil organic C (SOC) (key indicator of SOM) and reduce N fertilizer applications through symbiotic legume N fixation.

Three studies were conducted over multiple years at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center near Overton, TX. Annual cool- and warm-season legumes were evaluated as potential green manure crops and intercrops under grain sorghum [Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench], high-biomass sorghum [Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench], and annual forage cropping systems. These studies quantified legume soil moisture usage and C and N contributions to the soil and subsequent crop yields in East Texas. Primary project objectives were to maintain or maximize primary crop yields at reduced N fertilizer rates and to build SOC through the integration of legume green manures and intercrops.

Green manuring cool-season legumes showed the most beneficial effect on SOC, soil total N, and crop yields; however, significant increases in yield were only detected after three years in rotation. Intercropping Iron-and-Clay cowpea (Vigna unguiculata L. [Walp]) decreased yield of both high-biomass sorghum and grain sorghum due to competitive vegetative growth. Iron-and-Clay did however improve biomass yields of high-biomass sorghum in two subsequent years when implemented as a green manure. Despite large N yields as high as 310 kg ha-1, impacts of legumes on annual forage crops was limited. Poor response was likely a result of previous field history in which a permanent warm-season grass pasture was cultivated for site preparation and mineralized SOC released substantial amounts of available N. Under low soil N conditions, legume green manures produce enough N to likely reduce N fertilizer requirements cost-effectively for subsequent crops in East Texas.