Soil functional zone management: A vehicle for enhancing production and soil ecosystem services in row-crop agroecosystems

Alwyn Williams, Daniel A. Kane, Patrick M. Ewing, Lesley W. Atwood, Andrea Jilling, Meng Li, Yi Lou, Adam S. Davis, A. Stuart Grandy, Sheri C. Huerd, Mitchell C. Hunter, Roger T. Koide, David A. Mortensen, Richard G. Smith, Sieglinde S. Snapp, Kurt A. Spokas, Anthony C. Yannarell, Nicholas R. Jordan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


There is increasing global demand for food, bioenergy feedstocks and a wide variety of bio-based products. In response, agriculture has advanced production, but is increasingly depleting soil regulating and supporting ecosystem services. New production systems have emerged, such as no-tillage, that can enhance soil services but may limit yields. Moving forward, agricultural systems must reduce trade-offs between production and soil services. Soil functional zone management (SFZM) is a novel strategy for developing sustainable production systems that attempts to integrate the benefits of conventional, intensive agriculture, and no-tillage. SFZM creates distinct functional zones within crop row and inter-row spaces. By incorporating decimeter-scale spatial and temporal heterogeneity, SFZM attempts to foster greater soil biodiversity and integrate complementary soil processes at the sub-field level. Such integration maximizes soil services by creating zones of ‘active turnover’, optimized for crop growth and yield (provisioning services); and adjacent zones of ‘soil building’, that promote soil structure development, carbon storage, and moisture regulation (regulating and supporting services). These zones allow SFZM to secure existing agricultural productivity while avoiding or minimizing trade-offs with soil ecosystem services. Moreover, the specific properties of SFZM may enable sustainable increases in provisioning services via temporal intensification (expanding the portion of the year during which harvestable crops are grown). We present a conceptual model of ‘virtuous cycles’, illustrating how increases in crop yields within SFZM systems could create self-reinforcing feedback processes with desirable effects, including mitigation of trade-offs between yield maximization and soil ecosystem services. Through the creation of functionally distinct but interacting zones, SFZM may provide a vehicle for optimizing the delivery of multiple goods and services in agricultural systems, allowing sustainable temporal intensification while protecting and enhancing soil functioning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number65
JournalFrontiers in Plant Science
Issue numberFEB2016
StatePublished - Feb 5 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Plant Science


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