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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Deep soil inventories reveal that impacts of cover crops and compost on soil carbon sequestration differ in surface and subsurface soils.

  • Author(s): Tautges, Nicole E
  • Chiartas, Jessica L
  • Gaudin, Amélie CM
  • O'Geen, Anthony T
  • Herrera, Israel
  • Scow, Kate M
  • et al.

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Increasing soil organic carbon (SOC) via organic inputs is a key strategy for increasing long-term soil C storage and improving the climate change mitigation and adaptation potential of agricultural systems. A long-term trial in California's Mediterranean climate revealed impacts of management on SOC in maize-tomato and wheat-fallow cropping systems. SOC was measured at the initiation of the experiment and at year 19, at five depth increments down to 2 m, taking into account changes in bulk density. Across the entire 2 m profile, SOC in the wheat-fallow systems did not change with the addition of N fertilizer, winter cover crops (WCC), or irrigation alone and decreased by 5.6% with no inputs. There was some evidence of soil C gains at depth with both N fertilizer and irrigation, though high variation precluded detection of significant changes. In maize-tomato rotations, SOC increased by 12.6% (21.8 Mg C/ha) with both WCC and composted poultry manure inputs, across the 2 m profile. The addition of WCC to a conventionally managed system increased SOC stocks by 3.5% (1.44 Mg C/ha) in the 0-30 cm layer, but decreased by 10.8% (14.86 Mg C/ha) in the 30-200 cm layer, resulting in overall losses of 13.4 Mg C/ha. If we only measured soil C in the top 30 cm, we would have assumed an increase in total soil C increased with WCC alone, whereas in reality significant losses in SOC occurred when considering the 2 m soil profile. Ignoring the subsoil carbon dynamics in deeper layers of soil fails to recognize potential opportunities for soil C sequestration, and may lead to false conclusions about the impact of management practices on C sequestration.

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