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Cover Crop Effects on Crop Yields and Soil Organic Carbon Content

Olson, Kenneth R.1; Ebelhar, Stephen A.2; Lang, James M.3

doi: 10.1097/SS.0b013e3181cf7959
Technical Article

An 8-year cover crop study was conducted in southern Illinois to evaluate the effects of conservation tillage systems on corn and soybean yields and for the maintenance and restoration of soil organic carbon (SOC) and soil productivity of previously eroded soils. In 2001, the no-till (NT), chisel plow, and moldboard plow (MP) treatment plots, which were replicated six times in a Latin square design, were split (with cover crop and without) on sloping, moderately well-drained, moderately eroded soil. The average corn and average soybean yields were similar for NT, chisel plow, and MP systems with and without cover crops. By 2009, the tillage zone, subsoil, and rooting zone of all treatments had similar SOC on a volume basis for the cover crop treatments as for the same tillage treatment without a cover crop. However, using the baseline 2000 SOC contents only, the NT with cover crops maintained most of the SOC levels in the topsoil and subsoil during the 8-year study, when the sediment was high in SOC and retained in the upland landscape by soil conservation practices, including border and filter strips and sod waterways adjacent to the plots, with and without cover crops. Soil carbon creation retention in the upland landscape was greatest for the MP treatments when sediments were retained by the soil conservation practices, which should reduce soil erosion and sediment rich in SOC being transported by overland flow into water and the eventual release of methane and carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

1Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, S-224 Turner Hall, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL 61801. Dr. Kenneth Olson is corresponding author. E-mail:

2Department of Crop Sciences, Dixon Springs Agricultural Center, Simpson, IL.

3Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL.

Received December 1, 2009.

Accepted for publication December 8, 2009.

© 2010 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.