Soil-improving cropping systems: Innovation hubs for soil-improving cropping systems

Soil improving cropping systems (SICS) are based on conservation or organic agriculture. They aim at sustaining or improving soil functions. Indicators were developed at farm and cropping system level on crop yields and soil quality in three systems: conventional, no-till and organic farming. In addition, pioneer farmers applying SICS were mobilised.

  • Background (completed research project)

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    The building of a network composed of pioneer farmers, i.e. the formation of innovation hubs, helps to understand to which extent their practices contribute effectively to soil protection, how the goal is achieved, and how these practices can be extended to other farms. In a multidisciplinary, multi-actor approach the project has evaluated the effects of SICS on a range of soil quality parameters and crop yield.

  • Aim

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    The overall objective consists in developing a specific set of instruments for assessing SICS and strategies for a broader implementation of SICS in Swiss agriculture. 60 arable fields have been compared. This project tests whether SICS can be used to promote the functioning of soil, soil biodiversity, and carbon accumulation without negative impacts on plant yield and income per hectare.

  • Results

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    The innovation hubs serve as exchange platforms for the implementation of SICS. A precise referencing of fields and the archiving of soil samples will help at developing innovation hubs available on the long term.

  • Importance for research

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    The data obtained have provided a broad picture of the current status of cropping systems. New insights into several crucial themes have been achieved: physical and nutrient stratification along the soil profile, the content of organic matter and stability of aggregates, the influence of SICS on crops and root growth, so as on microbial biomass and mycorrhiza. Indicators for cropping systems have been specifically gathered to help the evaluation of existing cropping practices, the assessment of soil quality and to facilitate the dissemination of results for farmers. The multidisciplinary composition of the research consortium has reinforced the research in agroecosystems and the capacity to better understand the functioning of complex cropping systems based on pertinent and coherent criteria.

  • Practical significance

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    Because the study is based on many farms, results of this project can be generalized to make recommendations beyond the three studied production systems. The results consolidate the recommendations for appropriate soil management:

    • By choosing specific cropping techniques (machine traffic, fertilisers, pesticides) farmers can effectively modify soil parameters.
    • No simple recommendation can be generalised in terms of cropping techniques to modify soil carbon stocks. However, the reduction of soil tillage intensity and the management of humus balance lead to a higher concentration of organic matter in the first soil layer and a related improved stability and a stimulation of soil microorganisms.
    • Reducing the use of pesticides and fertilizers have led to a higher soil biological activity and root colonization by mycorrhiza. However, the observed intensive cropping systems (fertilizer, crop protection, soil tillage) have effectively provided a higher yield level. The balance between crop production intensity and soil protection remains a challenging objective. A site adapted practice would need to be considered.

    The results of this project help also to design a set of indicators allowing to evaluate the condition of soils. Part of these indicators are available to develop specific radar systems as decision support or monitoring tool.

    The innovation hubs have served as exchange platforms for the implementation of innovative SICS. A precise referencing of fields and the archiving of soil samples will help to further develop innovation hubs.

  • Original title

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    Innovation hubs for the evaluation and adoption of soil-improving cropping systems