Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems

Special Section: Supporting ecosystem services with conservation agricultural approaches

Organic grain cropping systems to enhance ecosystem services

Michel A. Cavigellia1 c1, Steven B. Mirskya1, John R. Teasdalea1 , John T. Spargoa2 and John Dorana3 

a1 United States Department of Agriculture—Agricultural Research Service, 10300 Baltimore Avenue, Beltsville, MD 20705, USA.

a2 University of Massachusetts, West Experiment Station, 682 North Pleasant St., Amherst, MA 01003-9302, USA.

a3 United States Department of Agriculture—Agricultural Research Service, 118 Keim Hall, UNL-East Campus, Lincoln, NE 68583, USA.


Organic grain cropping systems can enhance a number of ecosystem services compared with conventional tilled (CT) systems. Recent results from a limited number of long-term agricultural research (LTAR) studies suggest that organic grain cropping systems can also increase several ecosystem services relative to conventional no-till (NT) cropping systems: soil C sequestration and soil N fertility (N mineralization potential) can be greater while global warming potential (GWP) can be lower in organic systems that use animal manures and cover crops compared with conventional NT systems. However, soil erosion from organic systems and nitrous oxide (N2O, a greenhouse gas) emissions from manure-based organic systems appear to be greater than from conventional NT systems, though data are limited. Also, crop yields, on average, continue to be lower and labor requirements greater in organic than in both tilled and NT conventional systems. Ecosystem services provided by organic systems may be improved by expanding crop rotations to include greater crop phenological diversity, improving nutrient management, and reducing tillage intensity and frequency. More diverse crop rotations, especially those that include perennial forages, can reduce weed pressure, economic risk, soil erosion, N2O emissions, animal manure inputs, and soil P loading, while increasing grain yield and soil fertility. Side-dressing animal manures in organic systems may increase corn nitrogen use efficiency and also minimize animal manure inputs. Management practices that reduce tillage frequency and intensity in organic systems are being developed to reduce soil erosion and labor and energy needs. On-going research promises to further augment ecosystem services provided by organic grain cropping systems.

(Accepted December 11 2012)

(Online publication January 16 2013)

Key words

  • organic farming;
  • ecosystem services;
  • grain cropping systems;
  • nutrient management;
  • reduced tillage;
  • phenological diversity of crop rotations


c1 Corresponding author:



  Retired, Co-Founder REAP (