Intensive management of agroecosystems has been widely indicated as major responsible for soil degradation, thus negatively impacting on relationships between agriculture and climate change. Conservation tillage (i.e. no-till and minimum tillage) has been recommended for enhancing soil organic carbon (SOC) and total nitrogen (STN) stocks while having a positive impact on food security, biodiversity, water quality and the environment. Nevertheless, positive responses were mainly reported in hot and semiarid climates, with rainfed crops and low N fertilization rates. Therefore, the main objective of this study was to test the adoption of conservation tillage in intensive maize cropping systems under temperate soil, with high N fertilization rate (> 200 kg N ha−1 yr−1) and organic matter input (i.e. manure distribution and high biomass return), and with permanent optimum water moisture due to irrigation. We conducted an 8-year field experiment on a maize (Zea mays L.) monoculture to assess: (i) the effect of no-till (NT) and minimum tillage (MT), on grain yield and biomass return as compared with conventional tillage (CT); (ii) how tillage systems affect the evolution of SOC and STN levels over time under these conditions; (iii) soil aggregation processes and mechanisms leading to SOC and STN changes in the long-term. Results showed that MT increased maize grain yield (+7 %) and total biomass (+10 %) compared with CT. Conversely, NT reduced maize grain and biomass production during the initial 5-year transition, but afterwards increased maize yield up to that of CT. At the end of the experiment, SOC sequestration was increased under NT and MT by 1.45 and 1.52 Mg C ha−1 yr−1 compared with CT, respectively. Also, STN accumulation was higher under NT and MT than under CT (+0.15 and +0.17 Mg N ha−1 yr−1, respectively). Most of such a SOC and STN increase was located into C- and N-rich macroaggregates. Within those macroaggregates (large macroaggregates, LM; small macroaggregates, sM), we found that C and N pools associated to mM accounted for between 41 and 65 % of total C and N content in NT and MT systems across the different soil layers, which is beneficial for long-term C and N stabilization in soils. Thus, introducing conservation tillage within intensive agricultural context devoted to maize monoculture as that of the Po Valley should be recommended to: (i) maintain (or even increase) maize yield, and (ii) enhance SOC and STN accumulation and stabilization.
- Aggregate-size associated C and N
- Maize monoculture
- Maize yield
- Minimum tillage
- Soil carbon and nitrogen