Microbial properties and nitrogen contents of arable soils under different tillage regimes

B. Sun, D. M. Roberts, P. G. Dennis, S. Caul, T. J. Daniell, P. D. Hallett, D. W. Hopkins*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)


Attention is being paid to the use of different tillage regimes as a means of retaining soil organic carbon (SOC) and sequestering more SOC. Alongside earlier measurements of total SOC stocks under different tillage regimes, we have examined the distribution of nitrogen (N), microbial activity and the structure of the soil bacterial community from differently tilled plots under continuous barley. The plots were established 5 yr before sampling and have been maintained annually under conventional tillage (CT; moldboard ploughing to 20 cm and disking), deep ploughing (DP; ploughing to 40 cm and disking), minimum tillage (MT; disking to 7 cm) or zero tillage (ZT). Our earlier work showed there was no difference in SOC contents down to 60-cm depth between the treatments, but now we report that there were significant differences in the total N and active microbial biomass (substrate-induced respiration) contents of the same soils. The N contents of the CT, DP and MT treatments were not significantly different, but the ZT contained significantly more N, indicating either greater N retention under the ZT treatment or preferential loss from the more intensively tilled treatments, or a combination of both. The microbial biomass content was greater for the CT and DP treatments than for the MT and ZT treatments, indicating greater sensitivity to treatment effects of the microbial biomass pool than the total C pool, consistent with its more dynamic nature. Terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism (T-RFLP) analyses of the soil bacteria DNA (a method of assessing the bacterial community structure) enabled the samples to be distinguished both according to SOC content, which is to be expected, and to tillage regime with the greatest differences in community structure occurring in the ZT treatment and the least in DP and CT treatments, reflecting the degree of homogenization or disturbance resulting from tillage.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)152-159
Number of pages8
JournalSoil Use and Management
Issue number1
Early online date14 Oct 2013
Publication statusPrint publication - Mar 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Bacterial diversity
  • Carbon
  • Microbial biomass
  • Nitrogen
  • Terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism
  • Tillage


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