Monoculture vs. Polyculture Part I: “Straight up” beats “cocktails” for cover crop productivity | CSANR (2022)

Planting cover crop mixtures is very popular right now. The practice has a feel-good aspect about it and, buoyed by the ecological theory, it fits with the current “mimic nature” strategy of agroecologists. In a previous blog post I demonstrated how difficult it is to do research on cover crop mixtures. Although difficult, there are intrepid researchers investigating this practice so I decided to see what they were finding. The results call into question the value of cover crop mixtures, as in many situations a monoculture cover crop would both produce more biomass and provide other desired services as well.

My last post is related to this; there, I showed the hypothesis that diverse polycultures exhibit transgressive overyielding, is not supported by research results (i.e., polyculture yields do not exceed yields of their best yielding component when it is grown in monoculture). But does this apply to cover crops? Might polyculture cover crops give some benefit over monocultures? For if an agricultural practice exists that is well-suited to mimicking nature, it is a cover crop, which is not harvested like a food crop, and thus is easier to manage as a mixture. Cover crops are planted specifically to provide what are now called ecosystem services; benefits like suppressing weeds, recycling nutrients, and supplying nitrogen.

First, a little about why using cover crop polycultures could be beneficial, some of which is covered in this eXtension webinar by a team at Penn State. The theory is that a mixture (polyculture) of species will interact in a complimentary way so as to produce more biomass and other ecosystem services, than one species planted by itself (monoculture). The theoretical relationship is shown in this graph (Tilman et al. 2014) where productivity increases with species diversity (the small triangles are individual trials and the large dots connected by the line are the average biomass yields for each level of diversity). If this would work with cover crops, then cover crop polycultures could do a lot of good.

So what are the researchers finding? How do polycultures stack up against monocultures when it comes to cover crop yields? Here is a summary of the studies that I reviewed:

Authors and Location

Study duration, years

Species used

# of species in mixtures

Measured effects

Results for Monoculture productivity1

Penn State team, listed here, Pennsylvania

3

Two legumes, two cool season grasses, two Brassicas

3, 3, 4, 5, 6

Shoot biomass, weed suppression, insect populations, and nitrogen (N) supply

> or =

Wortman et al. 2012, Nebraska

2

Four Brassicas and four legumes

2, 4, 6 and 8

Shoot biomass production and stability

> or =

Smith et al. 2014, New Hampshire

2

Buckwheat, hairy vetch, field pea, mustard, sorghum-sudangrass, cereal rye

5

Shoot biomass production and stability, weed suppression

>

Miyazawa et al. 2014, Japan

4

A legume, a C4 grass and a forb (non-legume broadleaf)

2 (in multiple combinations) and 3

Shoot biomass, uptake of N, P and K

=

Hayden et al. 2014, Michigan

2

Hairy vetch and cereal rye

2 at 5 different rates

Shoot and root biomass, N supply

= or <

1 Results for each comparison/year; monoculture biomass production greater than (>), equal to (=) or less than (<) that of the best polyculture.

In this post I’ll focus on productivity and stability of production. Biomass production is important for cover crops because it is the biomass that adds organic matter to the soil, forms a protective cover over the soil, and suppresses weeds. It is important not just for itself, but it is a major factor in providing some ecosystem services. Therefore, it is significant that in all of these studies, the biomass production of the various mixtures was always equal or less than at least one of the monocultures – no evidence of transgressive overyielding was reported. In Wortman, the mustards dominated the mixtures, and mustards in monocultures were twice as productive as the legumes. This is common in intercropping research; one or a few species dominate the other species. Miyazawa found yield differences between the mono- and polycultures in only one of four years, and then the mixture was no better than the best monoculture. All the studies reported “overyielding,” where the polyculture biomass yields were greater than the average of the monoculture yields, but as concluded in the Cardinale et al. (2011) meta-analysis, transgressive overyielding, where the polyculture yield bests the best monoculture, is not a realistic expectation. One further note, although this is not a large number of studies, the results match the results from a much larger body of evidence reviewed by Cardinale et al. which was highlighted in a previous post.

Ecological theory also says that mixtures will have more stable productivity over time than monocultures. However, Wortman found no differences in stability between the two cropping strategies and Smith et al. found stability higher (less variable yields) in buckwheat and cereal rye monocultures. The Wortman group created an index that combined yield and stability and found that in both years, the top ranking plots for this index were always monocultures. While this is interesting, it is far from conclusive in terms of stability as both studies only had two years of data. With more years of data, the mixtures, because they have more species included, might better adapt to varying weather than any one monoculture. This hedging your bet strategy of using mixtures might be a benefit in regions with highly variable weather, especially precipitation, like the Great Plains, but would probably not be worthwhile under irrigation. The short time that cover crops are actually in the field also may work against ecological benefits of mixtures as they were mainly hypothesized for mixtures of perennials, and some research shows that they strengthen over time, which here means several years.

So, if you are growing a cover crop, and want to get high biomass production, it pays to plant the best crop as a monoculture. Since most cover crops are also crops, (probably because those species have been improved over time, i.e., less weedy characteristics, high yield, etc.) you probably know which crops will do well in your fields. In addition, because one benefit of using a cover crop is to add diversity to the crop rotation, you should choose one that is not normally in your rotation. Here, your choice may be limited and you may choose to plant a less-productive crop, still in a monoculture, for your crop rotation. For a highly diverse polyculture, you get all your diversity at once, but what do you plant following a 22-species polyculture, most or all of which are also crops? Your available diversity in time has been used up.

The research results for biomass production favor cover crop monocultures, however, there are other considerations. You can grow cover crops for weed suppression, nutrient recycling, and if legumes are grown, for nitrogen supply. I will address these other “ecosystem services” in my next post.

Thanks to Tara Zimmerman for insightful comments on drafts of this post.

Cardinale, B. J., Matulich, K. L., Hooper, D. U., Byrnes, J. E., Duffy, E., Gamfeldt, L., … Gonzalez, A. (2011). The functional role of producer diversity in ecosystems. American Journal of Botany, 98(3), 572–592. http://doi.org/10.3732/ajb.1000364

Hayden, Z. D., Ngouajio, M., & Brainard, D. C. (2014). Rye–Vetch Mixture Proportion Tradeoffs: Cover Crop Productivity, Nitrogen Accumulation, and Weed Suppression. Agronomy Journal, 106(3), 904. http://doi.org/10.2134/agronj2013.0467

Miyazawa, K., Takeda, M., Murakami, T., & Murayama, T. (2014). Dual and Triple Intercropping: Potential Benefits for Annual Green Manure Production. Plant Production Science, 17(2), 194–201. http://doi.org/10.1626/pps.17.194

Penn State cover crop project: webinar, slides, publication, website.

Tilman, D., Isbell, F., & Cowles, J. M. (2014). Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 45(1), 471.

Smith, R. G., Atwood, L. W., & Warren, N. D. (2014). Increased Productivity of a Cover Crop Mixture Is Not Associated with Enhanced Agroecosystem Services. PLoS ONE, 9(5), e97351. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0097351

Wortman, S. E., Francis, C. A., & Lindquist, J. L. (2012). Cover Crop Mixtures for the Western Corn Belt: Opportunities for Increased Productivity and Stability. Agronomy Journal, 104(3), 699. http://doi.org/10.2134/agronj2011.0422

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“Straight up” beats “cocktails” for cover crop productivity Planting cover crop mixtures is very popular right now. The practice has a feel-good aspect about it and, buoyed by the ecological theory, it fits with the current “mimic nature” strategy of… Read More Monoculture vs. Polyculture Part I

In Mixing the Perfect Cover Crop Cocktail I demonstrated how difficult it is to do research on cover crop mixtures.. The results call into question the value of cover crop mixtures, as in many situations a monoculture cover crop would both produce more biomass and provide other desired services as well.Do ecological theories natural biodiversity apply to cover crop polycultures?. My post Ecological Theories, Meta-Analysis, and the Benefits of Monocultures is related: I showed that the hypothesis that diverse polycultures exhibit transgressive overyielding, is not supported by research results (i.e., polyculture yields do not exceed yields of their best yielding component when it is grown in monoculture).. If this would work with cover crops, then cover crop polycultures could do a lot of good.. Biomass production is important for cover crops because it is the biomass that adds organic matter to the soil, forms a protective cover over the soil, and suppresses weeds.. All the studies reported “overyielding,” where the polyculture biomass yields were greater than the average of the monoculture yields, but as concluded in the Cardinale et al. (2011) meta-analysis, transgressive overyielding, where the polyculture yield bests the best monoculture, is not a realistic expectation.. The short time that cover crops are actually in the field also may work against ecological benefits of mixtures as they were mainly hypothesized for mixtures of perennials, and some research shows that they strengthen over time, which here means several years.. So, if you are growing a cover crop, and want to get high biomass production, it pays to plant the best crop as a monoculture.. Since most cover crops are also crops, (probably because those species have been improved over time, i.e., less weedy characteristics, high yield, etc.). The research results for biomass production favor cover crop monocultures, however, there are other considerations.

Cover crop mixtures, known as “cocktails” by some, are being promoted as having benefits over cover crops planted as monocultures. As I described in Part I, I reviewed recent research results to get at the answer to the question, “are monocultures or polycultures better when it comes to cover crops?” I found that, for biomass production at least, monocultures were actually best (see Part I). Now, let’s look at other services provided by cover crops and compare polycultures and monocultures. (See an explanation of monocultures, polycultures, overyielding and transgressive overyielding here)

Cover crop mixtures, known as “cocktails” by some, are being promoted as having benefits over cover crops planted as monocultures.. As their webinar states: “You do not need a mixture to get good weed suppression.” The legume monocultures did not suppress weeds well, but mixtures with legumes were similar to the best monocultures, probably because the aggressive species in the mixes, here oat and rye, dominated the legumes in the mixes.. Photo: C. Rebler.Although the Penn State team was the only one of these recent cover crop studies that looked at pest control benefits of mixtures – they counted the beneficial insects – what they found fits the pattern; the presence and density of flowers in the crop (mono- or polyculture) was more important than species diversity.. The effect of nitrogen on plants, whether it comes from legumes or from nitrogen fertilizer is well known and reported in many studies each year, so it should not surprise anyone to find that when mixtures including legumes are compared to monocultures without legumes on low-nitrogen soils, that the mixtures produce more biomass, and so suppress more weeds, and provide more soil cover.. One such claim was that cover crop mixtures use less water than monocultures, a critical factor in use of cover crops in regions like the Great Plains.. Nielsen et al. (2015) grew 10 monoculture cover crops and compared their use of water to a 10 species mixture.. The researchers surmised that when mixtures do not use as much water as monocultures it is not some synergy in the mixture, but rather a reflection of the lower yields in the mixture compared to the best monoculture species, and since water use is related to yield, less water is used in the mixture.. While it may hold true in natural systems, it is not supported by recent cover crop studies, where increasing the number of species did not enhance their performance (in Wortman, going from 2 to 8 species, in Miyazawa, going from two to three species, did not increase biomass or stability).. I believe this leaves you with the choice: 1) choose one primary goal for your cover crop and then plant a monoculture of the species that will best achieve that goal, or 2) choose a few goals and plant mixtures of species that best achieve those goals, recognizing that each of them will provide less of their service in a mixture than they would as a monoculture.

“Straight up” beats “cocktails” for cover crop ecosystem services Cover crop mixtures, known as “cocktails” by some, are being promoted as having benefits over cover crops planted as monocultures. As I described in Part I, I reviewed recent research results… Read More Monoculture vs. Polyculture Part II

Cover crop mixtures, known as “cocktails” by some, are being promoted as having benefits over cover crops planted as monocultures.. As I described in Part I , I reviewed recent research results to get at the answer to the question, “are monocultures or polycultures better when it comes to cover crops?” I found that, for biomass production at least, monocultures were actually best.. Now, let’s look at other services provided by cover crops and compare polycultures and monocultures.. Smith et al. (2014) found no evidence that mixtures (five species, in their case) enhanced weed suppression over monocultures.. As their webinar states: “You do not need a mixture to get good weed suppression.” The legume monocultures did not suppress weeds well, but mixtures with legumes were similar to the best monocultures, probably because the aggressive species in the mixes, here oat and rye, dominated the legumes in the mixes.. The effect of nitrogen on plants, whether it comes from legumes or from nitrogen fertilizer is well known and reported in many studies each year, so it should not surprise anyone to find that when mixtures including legumes are compared to monocultures without legumes on low-nitrogen soils, that the mixtures produce more biomass, and so suppress more weeds, and provide more soil cover.. What they found were tradeoffs; the more rye in a mix, the better the weed suppression; the more legume, the higher the amount of nitrogen fixed, but the worse the weed suppression.. When you mix them, the productivity of the first crop is reduced as is the nitrogen fixation of the legume – there is a tradeoff.. Again, there is a tradeoff here between yield and water use, not synergy between species.. The figure above (from Tilman et al., 2014), is similar to one I shared in Part I of this post.. For crops, and for cover crops , we should use the best monocultures, rotated in time to provide diversity.. I believe this leaves you with the choice: 1) choose one primary goal for your cover crop and then plant a monoculture of the species that will best achieve that goal, or 2) choose a few goals and plant mixtures of species that best achieve those goals, recognizing that each of them will provide less of their service in a mixture than they would as a monoculture.. Rye–Vetch Mixture Proportion Tradeoffs: Cover Crop Productivity, Nitrogen Accumulation, and Weed Suppression.. Increased Productivity of a Cover Crop Mixture Is Not Associated with Enhanced Agroecosystem Services.. Agronomy Journal, 104(3), 699. http://doi.org/10.2134/agronj2011.0422

Biochar Production Technologies

The flame provides heat for pyrolysis, and the resulting gases and vapors burn in the luminous zone in a process called flaming combustion, leaving behind char.. There are two types of pyrolysis systems in use today: fast pyrolysis and slow pyrolysis.. Fast pyrolysis tends to produce more oils and liquids while slow pyrolysis produces more syngas.. a literature review of pyrolysis reactors Gasification systems produce smaller quantities of biochar in a directly-heated reaction vessel with introduced air.. The more oxygen a production unit can exclude, the more biochar it can produce.. Gasification and pyrolysis production systems can be developed as mobile or stationary units.. At the local or regional level, pyrolysis and gasification units can be operated by co-operatives or larger industries, and can process up to 4,000 kg of biomass per hour.. Biochar ovens are low tech biochar production units with a primary design function of producing biochar.. This category of biochar production unit can be suitable for clean, healthy, distributed low tech biochar production (DLT) of by developing country smallholders and micro-entrepreneurs; “backyard” producers utilizing yard waste; small and urban farmers; nurseries; communal gardens; etc to convert the thinly distributed feedstock (TDF) available to them.. The primary functional design of these units is to produce biochar.. The name of this category is based on the metaphor that, as a bread oven is a unit used to bake dough to produce bread, a biochar oven is unit used to bake feedstock to produce biochar.. This rotary pyrolysis reactor from 3R Agrocarbon produces biochar and syngas. For a detailed look at pyrolysis and gasification technologies, see Chapter 8:. Biochar Production Technology, by Robert Brown (Iowa State University, Ames) of Biochar for Environmental Management.. Some technologies that hold promise for helping achieve these goals include drum pyrolyzers, rotary kilns, screw pyrolyzers, the flash carbonizer, fast pyrolysis reactors, gasifiers, hydrothermal processing reactors, and wood-gas stoves, all of which produce varying quantities of gas and liquids along with biochar.. The interest in biochar grew out of a state solid waste management plan called Beyond Waste that created the Organic Waste to Resources project, charged with examining ways to use nearly 17 million tons of organic waste identified in Washington State.

Conventional, intensive tillage farming systems have greatly increased crop production and labour efficiency. But, serious questions are being raised about the energy-intensive nature of these systems and their adverse effects on soil productivity and environmental quality1,2. This concern has led to an increasing interest in organic farming systems because they may reduce some of the negative effects of conventional agriculture on the environment3,4. We compare the long-term effects (since 1948) of organic and conventional farming on selected properties of the same soil. The organically-farmed soil had significantly higher organic matter content, thicker topsoil depth, higher polysaccharide content, lower modulus of rupture and less soil erosion than the conventionally-farmed soil. This study indicates that, in the long term, the organic farming system was more effective than the conventional farming system in reducing soil erosion and, therefore, in maintaining soil productivity.

Soil Wat.. Soil Conservation Service and Washington Agricultural Experiment Station.. Allison, F. E. Soil Organic Matter and Its Role in Crop Production (Elsevier, New York, 1973).. Soil Sci.. Soil Conservation Service in cooperation with Washington State University Agricutural Research Center Soil Survey of Whitman County, Washington (US Dept of Agriculture, US Government Printing Office, Washington, 1980).. Soil Wat.. Paper-75, USDA Soil Conservation Service, Washington, 1949).. Busacca, A. J., McCool, D. K., Papendick, R. I.. & Young, D. L. in Erosion and Soil Productivity (ed.. & Papendick, R. I. in Erosion and Soil Productivity (ed.. Miller, M. F. & Krusekopf, H. H. The Influence of Systems of Cropping and Methods of Culture on Surface Runoff and Soil Erosion (Bull.. 1,379, Agricultural Research Serivce, US Dept Agriculture, US Government Printing Office, Washington, 1968).. Brink, R. H. Jr, Dunbach, P. & Lynch, D. L. So// Sci 89, 157-166 (1960).

Instead, the solution lies in getting past the unproductive organic-synthetic debate and focusing on measures to increase the efficiency of all fertilizers and to reduce nitrogen losses. lose 46-72% more nitrogen (~10-20 more lbs) per acre to the environment than farmers not using manure. farmers…

Farmers who use manure in the U.S. lose 46-72% more nitrogen (~10-20 more lbs) per acre to the environment than farmers not using manure.. The practicalities of transporting manure also lead many animal producers to simply apply their manure supply to nearby cropland, which leads to high application rates, nitrogen losses, and eutrophication.. 19 , 20 , 21 , 22 Since using manure involves applying more nitrogen to get the same crop yield (compared to synthetic fertilizer), it typically results in greater nitrous oxide emissions per unit of food produced.. Given the wide use of animal manure and green manure on organic farms, it makes little sense to compare organic and synthetic fertilizers as monolithic categories.. 50 These two methods not only cut manure losses, emissions, and leaching, but also enable farmers to provide more nitrogen to crops with the same amount of manure, thereby reducing the need for other fertilizers.. Finally, changes in land management can also substantially reduce all types of nitrogen losses, whether from synthetic fertilizer or manure.

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