Microbial and biochemical soil quality indicators and their potential for differentiating areas under contrasting agricultural management regimes

Gary D. Bending, Mary K. Turner, Francis Rayns, Marie Claude Marx, Martin Wood

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    314 Citations (Scopus)


    The aim of this study was to examine interrelationships between functional biochemical and microbial indicators of soil quality, and their suitability to differentiate areas under contrasting agricultural management regimes. The study included five 0.8ha areas on a sandy-loam soil which had received contrasting fertility and cropping regimes over a 5 year period. These were organically managed vegetable, vegetable-cereal and arable rotations, an organically managed grass clover ley, and a conventional cereal rotation. The organic areas had been converted from conventional cereal production 5 years prior to the start of the study. All of the biochemical analyses, including light fraction organic matter (LFOM) C and N, labile organic N (LON), dissolved organic N and water-soluble carbohydrates showed significant differences between the areas, although the nature of the relationships between the areas varied between the different parameters, and were not related to differences in total soil organic matter content. The clearest differences were seen in LFOM C and N and LON, which were higher in the organic arable area relative to the other areas. In the case of the biological parameters, there were differences between the areas for biomass-N, ATP, chitin content, and the ratios of ATP: biomass and basal respiration: biomass. For these parameters, the precise relationships between the areas varied. However, relative to the conventionally managed area, areas under organic management generally had lower biomass-N and higher ATP contents. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus colonization potential was extremely low in the conventional area relative to the organic areas. Further, metabolic diversity and microbial community level physiological profiles, determined by analysis of microbial community metabolism using Biolog GN plates and the activities of eight key nutrient cycling enzymes, grouped the organic areas together, but separated them from the conventional area. We conclude that microbial parameters are more effective and consistent indicators of management induced changes to soil quality than biochemical parameters, and that a variety of biochemical and microbial analyses should be used when considering the impact of management on soil quality.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1785-1792
    Number of pages8
    JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
    Issue number11
    Publication statusPublished - Nov 2004


    • Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus
    • Enzymes
    • Light fraction organic matter
    • Metabolic diversity
    • Soil quality

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Soil Science
    • Biochemistry
    • Ecology


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