Soil physical properties and soil organic carbon content in northeast Brazil: long-term tillage systems effects

ABSTRACT Concerns about the negative effects of agriculture on soil physical quality and soil organic carbon (SOC) pools have spurred on the adoption of conservation tillage systems in tropical regions. This study aimed to evaluate the long-term impacts (16th year) of conventional (CT), minimum (MT) and no-tillage (NT) practices and different cover crops (sunn hemp and a bean/millet sequence) on soil physical properties and SOC content of a corn cultivated Ultisol in the northeast of Brazil. Soil bulk density (Bd), soil penetration resistance (SPR), soil aggregation, and total aggregate-associated carbon (C) (4-2 mm) were evaluated. Tillage practices exerted strong control on soil physical properties and total aggregate-C content but were influenced by cover crop species. Minimum tillage presented the lowest Bd, irrespective of cover crop, while NT with bean/millet sequence resulted in the lowest SPR. However, as regards soil aggregation and total aggregate-C, the results indicated that there were no differences between MT and NT, with both systems presenting greater mean weight diameter (MWD) and total aggregate-C content than CT. Total aggregate-C content in the 0.00-0.05 m soil layer in conservation tillage was increased by the adoption of a bean/millet sequence. Increased mechanical disturbance through CT practices was harmful to Bd, soil aggregation and SOC accrual. Overall, more conservative tillage practices and the proper choice of cover crops might yield greater soil quality. Low intensity of soil disturbances due to the adoption of MT favors soil aggregation and the accrual of SOC in weakly structured soils through increases in contact between organic and mineral particles while not causing significant destruction of soil aggregates.