Nowadays, agriculture is facing the great challenge of climate change which puts the productivity of the crops in peril due to unpredictable rain patterns and water shortages, especially in the developing world. Besides productivity, nutritional values of the yields of these crops may also be affected, especially under low mechanization and the low water availability conditions of the developing world. Conservation agriculture (CA) is a topic of emerging interest due to the provision of adequate yields and reduced environmental impact, such as greenhouse gas emissions, by being based on three main principles: minimum soil disturbance (reduced or no tillage), cover crop maintenance, and crop rotation. The aim of this study was to assess the impact of CA management on the growth performance and the nutritional profile of cowpea (Vigna unguiculata
L. Walp), a pulse of African origin, commonly known as black eye bean under field conditions. A field experiment was designed to assess the effect of conventional tillage (CT) and no-tillage (NT) combined with the usage of a set of cover crops, coupled to normal and deficient water regimes. Cowpea was revealed to be able to grow and yield comparably at each level of the treatment tested, with a better ability to face water exhaustion under CA management. After a faster initial growth phase in CT plots, the level of adaptability of this legume to NT was such that growth performances improved significantly with respect to CT plots. The flowering rate was higher and earlier in CT conditions, while in NT it was slower but longer-lasting. The leafy photosynthetic rate and the nutritional profile of beans were slightly influenced by tillage management: only total starch content was negatively affected in NT and watered plots while proteins and aminoacids did not show any significant variation. Furthermore, significantly higher carbon and nitrogen concentration occurred in NT soils especially at the topmost (0–5 cm) soil horizon. These findings confirm the capability of CA to enrich soil superficial horizons and highlight that cowpea is a suitable crop to be grown under sustainable CA management. This practice could be pivotal to preserve soils and to save agronomical costs without losing a panel of nutrients that are important to the human diet. Due to its great protein and aminoacidic composition, V. unguiculata
is a good candidate for further cultivation in regions of the word facing deficiencies in the intake of such nutrients, such as the Mediterranean basins and Sub-Saharan countries.
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