No-till annual wheat better for soil health in California’s climate

No-till annual wheat better for soil health in California’s climate

One more reason to adopt sustainable cultivation

California wheat farmers could both maintain their yields and improve soil health by growing annual wheat without tilling the soil year after year.

This could be one more encouragement to farmers to adopt a sustainable practice commonly called conservation tillage, no-till or minimum-till cultivation, impacting how we grow a grain that supplies about 20 percent of the calories and protein for people around the world.

A new study, by a team led by Mark Lundy, University of California Cooperative Extension specialist in UC Davis' Department of Plant Sciences, offers new insight for decades-long discussions around soil conservation, sustainable agriculture and climate-warming emissions related to growing our food. The study has been published in the journal Soil and Tillage Research. For the first time, researchers have shown that annual wheat that is not tilled each year is better for stashing carbon in the soil than perennial wheatgrass, while still yielding more crop in Central California.

Previous studies have looked at annual wheat that is tilled each year, annual wheat that is not tilled, and a cousin species, perennial intermediate wheatgrass (trademarked Kernza), which also is not tilled. But until now, no one has looked at all of the benefits and trade-offs together. Most importantly, “no one has ever controlled for tillage,” Lundy said. “And, no one has compared annual wheat to perennial intermediate wheatgrass over multiple years in a Mediterranean climate, which is what we have in California.”

This study also is unique because it delves into the deeper question of what is going on in the soil that drives the different results for carbon there. Soil carbon reflects various processes linked to plant activity and soil health. Measuring the different forms of soil carbon may also signal whether a farming system is accumulating carbon in the soil over time – a plus for reducing climate-warming gases in the atmosphere.

“Measuring soil carbon is complex and nuanced,” said Kalyn Taylor, the lead author on the paper. “We started this experiment because we wanted to know whether and how plant activity and tilling or not tilling would affect the carbon story belowground in California's climate.”

“When we started this study, we thought the crop being perennial or annual would drive the differences in carbon storage in the soil,” Lundy added. Specifically, they had expected perennial wheatgrass would lead to more carbon in the soil because of its deeper, better-established root system. “But that's not what we found,” he went on. “What we found was, it was the lack of tillage, plus the level of productivity of common annual wheat, that made the difference in soil carbon here in California.”

Soil carbon in annual vs. perennial grain

In 2017, Lundy, then-graduate-student Taylor, UC Davis Professor Emeritus Kate Scow and others on the team started measuring different forms of soil carbon in test plots at Russell Ranch, west of campus. Plots were planted with annual wheat that was tilled each spring, annual wheat that was not tilled and perennial intermediate wheatgrass (Kernza) that also was not tilled.

Each year, the researchers measured the carbon present in the soil, the amount of soil organisms (which have carbon in their bodies) and the amount of material the plants created.

At the end of three growing seasons, they found that land planted with no-till, common, annual wheat had the highest amount of soil organisms, measured as biomass, of the three treatments.

The researchers also found soil carbon is more likely to remain stable in the no-till, annual plots, compared to both tilled wheat and wheatgrass.

In addition, the no-till, annual wheat produced plant material more consistently than the perennial wheatgrass across the three years, which saw variation in rainfall.

“Overall, annual wheat grown without soil disturbance or tillage had both higher productivity and higher potential for storing carbon in the topsoil than perennial wheatgrass in our Mediterranean climate,” Lundy said.

Related research

“No-till annual wheat increases plant productivity, soil microbial biomass, and soil carbon stabilization relative to intermediate wheatgrass in a Mediterranean climate,” is online now and will be published in the January 2024 edition of Soil and Tillage Research.

The team also found that tilled annual wheat vs. Kernza stores total carbon at different depths in the soil profile and hosts distinct soil fungal communities, primarily in the root zone and topsoil: Taylor, K., Samaddar, S., Schmidt, R., Lundy, M. and Scow, K., 2023. Soil carbon storage and compositional responses of soil microbial communities under perennial grain IWG vs. annual wheat. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, p.109111.

Previous work comparing the perennial grain known as intermediate wheatgrass (trademarked Kernza) to annual wheat had not distinguished the extent to which soil health benefits are a function of the perennial nature of the crop. Read the story here.

This story was originally published on the UC Davis News site.