Diversifying with grain legumes amplifies carbon in management-sensitive soil organic carbon pools on smallholder farms
Crop diversification with grain legumes has been advocated as a means to increase agroecological resilience, diversify livelihoods, boost household nutrition, and enhance soil health and fertility in cereal-based cropping systems in sub-Saharan Africa and around the world. Soil organic carbon (SOC) is a primary indicator of soil health and there is limited data regarding SOC pools and grain legume diversification on smallholder farms where soils are often marginal. In Malawi, a range of legume diversification options are under investigation, including rotations and a doubled-up legume rotation (DLR) system in which two compatible legumes are intercropped and then rotated with a cereal. The impact of the DLR system on SOC has not yet been determined, and there is a lack of evidence regarding SOC status over a gradient of simple to complex grain legume diversified systems. We address this knowledge gap by evaluating these systems in comparison to continuous sole maize (Zea mays L.) at three on-farm trial sites in central Malawi. After six years of trial establishment, we measured SOC in bulk soils and aggregate fractions and in faster cycling SOC pools that respond more rapidly to management practices, including water extractable organic carbon (WEOC), particulate organic matter carbon (POM-C), potentially mineralizable carbon (C), and macroaggregate C. Cropping treatment differences were not seen in bulk SOC or total N, but they were apparent in SOC pools with a shorter turnover time. The DLR system of intercropped pigeonpea (Cajanus cajan (L.) Millsp.) and groundnut (Arachis hypogaea L.) rotated with maize had higher WEOC, POM-C, potentially mineralizable C, macroaggregate and microaggregate C values than continuous maize. Of the single legume rotations, the pigeonpea-maize rotation had more mineralizable C and microaggregate C compared to continuous maize, while the groundnut-maize rotation had similar C values to the maize system. Overall, this study shows the potential for crop rotations diversified with grain legumes to enhance C in management sensitive SOC pools, and it is one of the first reports to show this effect on smallholder farm sites.