The potential excessive nutrient and/or microbial loading from mismanaged land application of organic fertilizers is forcing changes in animal waste management. Currently, it is not clear to what extent different rates of poultry litter impact soil microbial communities, which control nutrient availability, organic matter quality and quantity, and soil degradation potential. From 2002 to 2004, we investigated the microbial community and several enzyme activities in a Vertisol soil (fine, smectitic, thermic, Udic Haplustert) at 0 to 15 cm as affected by different rates of poultry litter application to pasture (0, 6.7, and 13.4 Mg ha(-1)) and cultivated sites (0, 4.5, 6.7, 9.0, 11.2, and 13.4 Mg ha(-1)) in Texas, USA. No differences in soil pH (average: 7.9), total N (pasture: 2.01-3.53, cultivated: 1.09-1.98 g kg(-1) soil) or organic C (pasture average: 25-26.7, cultivated average: 13.9-16.1 g kg(-1) soil) were observed following the first four years of litter application. Microbial biomass carbon (MBC) and nitrogen (MBN) increased at litter rates greater than 6.7 Mg ha(-1) (pasture: MBC = >863, MBN = >88 mg kg(-1) soil) compared to sites with no applied litter (MBC = 722, MBN = 69 mg kg(-1) soil). Enzyme activities of C (beta-glucosidase, alpha-galactosidase, beta-glucosaminidase) or N cycling (beta-glucosaminidase) were increased at litter rates greater than 6.7 Mg ha(-1). Enzyme activities of P (alkaline phosphatase) and S (arylsulfatase) mineralization showed the same response in pasture, but they were only increased at the highest (9.0, 11.2, and 13.4 Mg ha(-1)) litter application rates in cultivated sites. According to fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) analysis, the pasture soils experienced shifts to higher bacterial populations at litter rates of 6.7 Mg ha(-1), and shifts to higher fungal populations at the highest litter application rates in cultivated sites. While rates greater than 6.7 Mg ha(-1) provided rapid enhancement of the soil microbial populations and enzymatic activities, they result in P application in excess of crop needs. Thus, studies will continue to investigate whether litter application at rates below 6.7 Mg ha(-1), previously recommended to maintain water quality, will result in similar improved soil microbial and biochemical functioning with continued annual litter application.