NCERA59: Soil Organic Matter: Formation, Function and Management

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Active

NCERA59: Soil Organic Matter: Formation, Function and Management

Duration: 10/01/2016 to 09/30/2021

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Statement of Issues and Justification

New knowledge and practices that build soil resources through management and maintenance of soil organic matter (SOM) and SOM dependent processes provide the foundation of healthy farms, communities, and environments. The complex biological, geological, and chemical processes involved in SOM formation and function require exploration by interdisciplinary and collaborative teams. Founded in 1952, NCERA-59 remains the only multi-state committee in the U.S. investigating how management practices affect the nature and genesis of soil organic matter and how this alters soils’ biological, physical, and chemical function. Research and extension activities are fully integrated to foster knowledge use to increase soil’s capacity to: resist and recover from stress, capture and retain matter including carbon (C), nitrogen (N) and essential nutrients, filter, retain and transport water, and support healthy plant and animal life. Committee activities advance our ability to promote and conserve soil’s regulating and provisioning ecosystem services including C sequestration, soil nutrient cycling, N use efficiency, and water retention. NCR 59’s research and outreach efforts are important for the protection of soil resources, reduction of environmental impacts from agricultural activity, and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. To work toward these goals, the committee will continue to explore how amendments, crop rotation, tillage and drainage affect the genesis, composition, reactivity and function of humic and non-humic organic substances.

Many scientists outside the North Central Region participate regularly in the annual meeting of the committee and this broadens the scope and relevance of our work, allowing us to consider site and system specific aspects of organic matter management.  Research activities continue to explore organic matter composition (Zhou et al. 2015) and stabilization (Throckmorton et al. 2015; Silva et al., 2015); and, are actively investing C and N interactions and their influence on priming (Castellano et al. 2015; Schmidt et al. 2016), aggregation (Blanco-Canqui et al., 2015), and microbial communities (Rudisill et al., 2016; Zhang et al., 2016).  Linkages to plant soil interactions are being made through exploration of N release from cover crops (Jani et al., 2015), disease suppression (Marzano  et al., 2015), the effects of mycorrhizal associations on P and N nutrition (Duan et al., 2015, and of plant growth promoting bacterial and humic acid on root growth and crop yield (Canellas et al., 2015).  In addition to this, group members remain committed to information application by improving and applying process models (Necpalova et al. 2015; Qin et al. 2016) and soil quality indicators (Cates et al., 2106; Dose et al., 2015; Ugarte and Wander, 2015; Veum et al., 2012).

One of the most important functions of NCERA-59 is to provide an informal setting for exchanging ideas among scientists interested in the various roles of SOM in the functioning of ecosystems. The technical outreach component of this committee has been especially important in transferring information to its members as well as to the general research community. In addition, many of the efforts of committee members have influenced policy at both the state and local level. The committee allows younger scientists the opportunity to interact with established scientist working across the country. Diversity of member research interests (microbial, biochemical, chemical, physical and applied aspects of SOM dynamics) remains a strength of this group.

The NCERA-59 committee will continue to promote research cooperation among its members and build on its historical mission to foster interest in and, mechanistic understanding of, how crop and soil management practices alter organic matter formation, SOM chemistry, and the biological and physical reactivity of humic and non-humic substances and, work to develop models and information tools systems that help solve problems of regional and national scope. The committee will follow up on previous high-impact activities including the production of edited books and symposia on topics of shared interest. Current plans include efforts focused on cropping systems and feedbacks influencing ecological stoichiometry and associated SOM dynamics, the development of interpretive frameworks using SOM fractions as indicators of soil health and soil nitrogen supply potential, and understanding relationships between SOM and soil biology.


  1. Coordinate research collaborations and information exchange on the biochemistry, biological transformations, and physical/chemical fractions of soil organic matter. Applications of this work can: (a) improve nutrient cycling and use efficiency in cropping systems, (b) determine soil carbon storage potential, (c) assess the stress and resilience of soils impacted by agricultural and other anthropogenic activities (d) better define particulate organic matter and potentially mineralizable C and N pools as indicators of nutrient release (e) mitigate greenhouse gases and (f) remediate degraded or contaminated soils.
  2. Identify and evaluate indicators that can be used to assess soils as a resource for ecosystem services. These may include detailed chemical characterizations of physically extracted fractions and interactions among soil microorganisms, plants and SOM.
  3. Conduct outreach activities to scientists in related disciplines and practitioners to promote the ecological management of soils, including practices that repair or sustain functionally important soil organic matter fractions in both managed and undisturbed systems.
  4. Co-sponsor symposia at national and international meetings. Contribute and participate in educational and outreach activities to include training of the next generation of scientists.
  5. Interact with other organizations including regional committees as-well as industry as appropriate.

Procedures and Activities

1) We will accomplish Objectives 1&2 through the following targeted activities: (a) annual committee meetings, each focused on one of the themes listed in Obj. 1&2, using roundtable discussions, invited and NCERA-59 participant presentations, and field or lab tours for reporting results and information exchange; (b) exploring funding for collaborative research grant opportunities on the formation, function and management of SOM across spatial scales. (c) Subgroups of members with collaborative projects or interests will summarize their work for presentations at national meetings and in review papers.

2) Accomplishment of the outreach activities described in Objective 3 will include the collection and dissemination of research findings and advances in SOM management on the internet, as well as with scientists in related fields at meetings organized under Objectives 4&5.

3) We will work with national and international societies to co-sponsor soil organic matter oriented symposia that emphasize research on humus chemistry, the role of soil organic matter in C sequestration and nutrient cycling, biodiversity, soil and water quality, and productivity. The Soil Science Society of America, International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS), International Humic Substances Society and the Soil Ecological Society are examples of societies that actively engage in areas directly related to the goals of NCERA-59. Many of the members of NCERA-59 are participants in these societies and actively engage in symposia and publications that these societies produce.

4) We will coordinate NCERA-59 meetings with other appropriate NIFA committees, including NC-1178 that focuses on the impacts of crop residue removal for biofuels on soil properties, as well as other groups.

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • There will be a synergistic impact on the research programs of NCERA-59 members through exchange of ideas, information, and data.
  • Collaborations among members will result in scientific publications and reviews.
  • Organizing symposia at national and international meetings will continue to promote information exchange among the professional community. Our face to face NCERA-59 meetings over several days provide a unique opportunity to develop high impact, timely and emerging ideas for symposia as well as identify speakers. NCERA-59 has sponsored symposia at professional societies, including the Soil Science Society of America, Soil Ecological Society, and International Humic Substances Society.
  • The NCERA059 grant writing committee will be a powerful tool for enhancing the development of resources for collaborative research projects. By creating new funding streams for programs, the grant committees will deepen existing ties and enhance programs. The grant committee will meet virtualy to write a proposal at any time a grant opportunity is identified and matched with our programs needs. The grant committee will work between the regular meetings to ensure that any opportunities that present themselves can be met. Therefore, the grant committees will exist at all times and will be active anytime there is a need.
  • Outreach materials will address, organismal based processes, chemical and physical measures of SOM and carbon sequestration.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

Education and outreach will be accomplished through the following activities: (1) Significant contributions resulting from idea and information exchange by the committee will be summarized in review papers and/or presented at national meetings. (2) Symposia will be organized at national meetings to promote information exchange among the professional community. (3) Committee members will inform extension educators and others, including policy makers, of issues pertaining to SOM formation, function and management. (4) Contribute to eXtension and disseminate research results through other electronic forms of science based information. (5) Document thesis and dissertations that are produced by participants in the NCERA 59 committee.


NCERA59's governance will follow the standard description. The recommended Standard Governance for multistate research activities include the election of a Chair, a Chair-elect, and a Secretary. All officers are to be elected for at least two-year terms to provide continuity. Administrative guidance will be provided by an assigned Administrative Advisor and a NIFA Representative.

Literature Cited

Blanco-Canqui, H., Ferguson, R.B., Shapiro, C.A.,Drijber, R.A., and D.T. Walters. 2014. Does Inorganic Nitrogen Fertilization Improve Soil Aggregation? Insights from Two Long-Term Tillage Experiments. Journal of Environmental Quality. 43:995-1003.

Canellas, L.P., S.F. da Silva, D.C. Olk, and F.L. Olivares.  2015. Foliar application of plant growth- promoting bacteria and humic acid increase maize yields. Journal of Food, Agriculture & Environment. 13: 131-138. 

Castellano, M. J., Mueller, K.E., Olk, D.C., Sawyer, J.E., and J.  Six. 2015. Integrating plant litter quality, soil organic matter stabilization, and the carbon saturation concept. Global Change Biology, 21(9), 3200-3209.

Cates, A.M., Ruark, M.D., Hedtcke, J.L., and J.L. Posner. 2016. Long-term tillage, rotation and perennialization effects on particulate and aggregate soil organic matter. Soil & Tillage Research. 155:371-380.

Duan, J. Tian, H., Drijber, R.A., and Y. Gao. 2015. Systemic and local regulation of phosphate and nitrogen transporter genes by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in roots of winter wheat (Triticum aestivum L.). Plant Physiology and Biochemistry. 96:199-208.

Dose, H.L., Fortuna, A.M.,  Cihacek, L.J.Norland, J.,  DeSutter, T.M.,  Clay, D.E., and J. Bell.  2015. Biological indicators provide short term soil health assessment during sodic soil reclamation. Ecol. Ind. 58244-253.

Jani, A.D., Grossman, J.M., Smyth, T.J., and S. Hu. 2015. Influence of soil inorganic nitrogen and root diameter size on legume cover crop root decomposition and nitrogen release. Plant and Soil. 393: 57-68.

Marzano, S.Y., Wander, M.M., Villamil, M., Ugarte, C.M. and D. Eastburn.  2015. Organic transition effects on soilborne diseases of soybean and populations of Pseudomonadaceae. Agronomy J. 107:1087-1097.  

Necpalova, M., Anex, R. P., Fienen, M. N., Del Grosso, S. J., Castellano, M. J., Necpálová, M., and D.W>, Barker. 2015. Understanding the DayCent model: Calibration, sensitivity, and identifiability through inverse modeling. Environmental Modelling & Software, 66:110-130.

Qin, Z., Dunn, J.B., Kwon, H-Y, Mueller, S. and M.M. Wander. 2016. Influence of spatially-dependent, modeled soil carbon emission factors on life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of corn and cellulosic ethanol. Global Change Biol. DOI: 10.1111/gcbb.1233

Rudisill, M.A., Turco, R.F., and L.A. Hoagland. 2016. Fertility practices and rhizosphere effects alter ammonia oxidizer community structure and potential nitrification activity in pepper production soils. Applied Soil Ecology., 99:70-77.

Schmidt, J., E. Schulz, B. Michalzik, F. Buscot, and J.L.M. Gutknecht. 2015. Carbon input and crop related changes in microbial biomarker levels strongly affect the turnover and composition of soil organic carbon. Soil Biology and Biochemistry. 85:39-50.

Silva, L.C.R., Doane, T.A., Corrêa, R.S., Valverde,V.,  Pereira, E.I.P. and W.R. Horwath. 2015. Iron-mediated stabilization of soil carbon. Ecological Applications. 25:1226-1234

Throckmorton, H.M., Bird, J.A., Monte,N.,  Doane, T. Firestone, M.K., and W.R. Horwath. 2015. The soil matrix increases microbial C stabilization in temperate and tropical forest soils. Biogeochemistry 122: 35-45.

Ugarte, C. M., Kwon, H., Andrews, S. S., and M.M. Wander. 2014. A meta-analysis of soil organic matter response to soil management practices: An approach to evaluate conservation indicators. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 69:422-430.

Veum, K.S., Goyne, K. W., Kremer, R., and P. Motavalli. 2012. Relationships Among Water Stable Aggregates and Organic Matter Fractions Under Conservation Management. Soil Science Society of America Journal, 76:2143-2153.

Zhang, N., S. Wan, J. Guo, G. Han, J.L.M. Gutknecht, B. Schmid, L. Yu, W. Liu, J. Bi, Z. Wang, and K. Ma. 2015. Precipitation modifies the effects of warming and nitrogen addition on soil microbial communities in northern Chinese grasslands. Soil Biology and Biochemistry. 89:12-23.

Zhou, Z., B. Hua, X. Cao, J. Yang, D.C. Olk, B. Deng, F. Liu, R. Li, and J. Mao.  2015. Chemical compositions of dissolved organic matter from various sources as characterized by solid-state NMR.  Aquatic Sciences 77: 595-607. 


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