Maize-based crop rotations are advocated as alternate to rice-based systems in South Asia due to better suitability for diverse ecologies, higher yields with less water use and more palatable maize fodder compared to rice, and increased demand of maize from piggery and poultry industries. Alternate tillage and crop establishment practices are important management strategies for tackling the issues of soil health deterioration and over exploitation of underground water resources, particularly in rice based intensive crop rotations. The conservation agriculture (CA) based tillage and crop establishment practices such as zero tillage (ZT) and permanent raised beds (PB) hold potential to enhance soil organic carbon (SOC), physical and biological properties for sustainability of soil health. Therefore, a long term study was conducted to evaluate the twelve combinations of tillage practices (03) and irrigated intensive maize based crop rotations (04) on organic carbon, physical properties and microbial biomass and enzymatic activities of a sandy loam (Typic Haplustept) soil in north-western India. The tillage practices consisted of ZT, PB and conventional tillage (CT) in main plots and four diversified intensive maize based crop rotations (MWMb: Maize-Wheat-Mungbean, MCS: Maize-Chickpea-Sesbaina, MMuMb: Maize-Mustard-Mungbean, MMS: Maize-Maize-Sesbania) in sub plots. In this study we analysed the SOC, physical and biological properties of soil at various depths after 7 years of continuous ZT, PB and CT in diversified maize rotations. Compared to CT plots, the soil physical properties like water stable aggregates (WSA) > 250 μm were 16.1-32.5% higher, and bulk density (BD) and penetration resistance (PR) showed significant (P < 0.05) decline (11.0–14.3 and 11.2–12.0%) in ZT and PB plots at 0–15 and 15–30 cm soil layers. The soil organic carbon (SOC) increased by 34.6-35.3% at 0–15 cm, and 23.6-26.5% at 15–30 cm soil depths with conservation agriculture (ZT and PB) based crop establishment techniques over CT. Similarly, the soil microbial biomass carbon (MBC) under CA based systems increased by 45–48.9% in 0–30 cm profile depth of a sandy loam (Typic Haplustept) soil. Significant (P < 0.05) improvement in soil enzymatic activities i.e., Fluorescein diacetate, dehydrogenase, β Glucosidase and Alkaline phosphatase was also recorded in the CA based treatments. Significant (P < 0.05) synergistic effects of summer legumes (mungbean and Sesbania) with winter legume/cereal in crop rotations were observed on SOC,WSA, BD, PR and Ksat at 0–15 and 15–30 cm depths. Interaction between tillage and crop rotations were significant (P < 0.05) for soil organic carbon, physical properties and enzymatic activities. Thus our long-term study suggests that CA based crop management with selected diversified maize based rotations (MCS and MWMb) can be advocated as sustainable intensification strategy in light textured soils of north-western India and other similar agro-ecologies of South Asia.
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