Carbon cycling in cultivated land and its global significance

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  • Global Change Biology (1998) 4, 131141

    Carbon cycling in cultivated land and its globalsignificance

    G R E G O R Y A . B U YA N O V S K Y and G E O R G E H . WA G N E RUniversity of Missouri-Columbia, Soil and Atmospheric Science Department, 144 Mumford Hall, Columbia, MO 65211, USA

    Abstract

    Long-term data from Sanborn Field, one of the oldest experimental fields in the USA,were used to determine the direction of soil organic carbon (SOC) dynamics incultivated land. Changes in agriculture in the last 50 years including introduction ofmore productive varieties, wide scale use of mineral fertilizers and reduced tillagecaused increases in total net annual production (TNAP), yields and SOC content. TNAPof winter wheat more than doubled during the last century, rising from 2.02.5 to56 Mg ha1 of carbon, TNAP of corn rose from 34 to 9.511.0 Mg ha1 of carbon.Amounts of carbon returned annually with crop residues increased even more drastically,from less than 1 Mg ha1 in the beginning of the century to 33.5 Mg ha1 for wheatand 56 Mg ha1 for corn in the 90s. These amounts increased in a higher proportionbecause in the early 50s removal of postharvest residues from the field was discontinued.SOC during the first half of the century, when carbon input was low, was mineralizedat a high rate: 89 and 114 g m2 y1 under untreated wheat and corn, respectively.Application of manure decreased losses by half, but still the SOC balance remainednegative. Since 1950, the direction of the carbon dynamics has reversed: soil underwheat monocrop (with mineral fertilizer) accumulated carbon at a rate about 50 g m2 y1, three year rotation (corn/wheat/clover) with manure and nitrogen applicationssequestered 150 g m2 y1 of carbon. Applying conservative estimates of carbon sequestra-tion documented on Sanborn Field to the wheat and corn production area in the USA,suggests that carbon losses to the atmosphere from these soils were decreased by atleast 32 Tg annually during the last 4050 years. Our computations prove that cultivatedsoils under proper management exercise a positive influence in the current imbalancein the global carbon budget.

    Keywords: carbon sequestration, crop residue, cultivated land, global carbon balance, net annualproduction

    Received 24 October 1996; revised version accepted 11 March 1997

    Introduction

    Carbon flow through cultivated lands has never beenstudied to the same extent and detail as that in the nativeecosystems. It is widely accepted that conversion ofnative land, be it prairie or forest, into a cultivated systemcauses precipitous degradation of the soil organic matter(SOM). Typically 2040% of the native SOM is lost whenvirgin lands are converted to agriculture (Schlesinger1986; Mann 1986; Detwiler 1986; Cole et al. 1989). It isgenerally assumed that over time cultivated soils reacha new equilibrium at a lower level of organic carbon(Haas et al. 1957; Hobbs & Brown 1965; Unger 1968;Mann 1985).

    Correspondence: Dr Gregory Buyanovsky, fax 1 1/573-884-4960,e-mail snrgregb@muccmail.missouri.edu

    1998 Blackwell Science Ltd. 131

    Post-harvest residues are the sole source of carbon toreplenish soil organic matter decomposing as a result ofcultivation. Linear relationships between carbon inputswith residues and soil organic matter levels have beenestablished in several field experiments (Rassmussenet al. 1980; Cole et al. 1993; Rasmussen & Parton 1994).However, long-term observations of organic carbondynamics in cultivated soils combined with data on totalproductivity of crops are extremely rare. Because of thenon-nutrient status of carbon, its flow rate and storagecharacteristics are almost never included in agronomicstudies. Uncertainties in the carbon balance of agriculturallands prevent proper assessment of their role in globalcarbon balance, thus precluding accurate global carbon

  • 132 G . A . B U YA N O V S K Y & G . H . WA G N E R

    balance sheets, and, hence, approximations of the poten-tial for sequestration of carbon in cultivated soils areimprecise.

    There are concerns about a current imbalance in theglobal carbon budget. The difference between a 0 netflux and a release from tropical deforestation is 1.52.0 Pg y1 (Houghton 1995). Assumptions have beenmade that the carbon which cannot be accounted for isaccumulating in temperate ecosystems of the NorthernHemisphere (Tans et al. 1990), mainly in forests. Houghton(1995) argues, however, that an accumulation of thismagnitude in forests is unlikely. As for croplands andgrasslands, an increase in carbon content of such magni-tude, in his opinion, would be too obvious to gounnoticed. Taking into account total amount of carbonin agricultural ecosystems (111142 Pg) (Schlesinger 1984;Buringh 1984), a yearly accumulation of 12 Pg C wouldcorrespond to an increase of about 1%. For a soil with2.5% of organic carbon such an increase would beunnoticeable for at least 4050 years. Soil survey oroccasional observations could not reveal changes of thismagnitude due to differences in understanding of whatconstitutes SOM, the high variability in its content, andshortcomings of analytical techniques. Only long-termobservations with permanent sampling sites, tightly con-trolled management and documented inputs and outputscan register small increase occurring during a spanof decades.

    Sanborn Field, one of the oldest experimental fields inthe United States, uniquely meets the requirements forstudies of this kind. The Field has been maintainedthroughout the last 110 years. Despite shortcomings ofthe initial layout and irregular sampling of soil and crops,the field presents an invaluable asset for studies of carbonflux. Records on management, fertilization, yields of grainand forage (above-ground biomass), as well as the resultsof some analyses of historic soil samples are available.Particularly applicable are Sanborn Field records relatedto numerous fertility experiments conducted during thelast century, which allow an assessment of carbondynamics during a 100 1 year period since cultivationwas commenced on the field (Upchurch et al. 1985). Inaddition, important complementary studies using thisfield have focused, in recent years, on carbon cycling.This has opened the possibility of using old records incombination with data from sophisticated recentmeasurements (Buyanovsky & Wagner 1986, 1987;Buyanovsky et al. 1987; Balesdent et al. 1988).

    We evaluated experimental material collected duringthis long period and transposed this into carbon balancecharacteristics for cultivated fields representative ofMidwest agriculture. Combined with national crop statist-ics these evaluations were used to assess possible carbon

    1998 Blackwell Science Ltd., Global Change Biology, 4, 131141

    sequestration in U.S. croplands during postwar agricul-tural practices.

    Sanborn Field Data Set

    Sanborn Field, on the campus of the University ofMissouri-Columbia, was established in 1888 with rotationand manure treatments on 39 plots, each 30 3 10 m insize, separated by grass borders 1.5 m wide. The soil isa Mexico silt loam (fine montmorillonitic, mesic, UdollicOchraqualf) developed in thin loess deposits overlyingglacial till. The surface layer contains 2.52.9% organicmatter. Mean annual air temperature of the region is13 C, with maximum monthly average in July (26 C)and minimum in January ( 1.5 C). Mean annualprecipitation is 973 mm, with potential evapo-transpiration of 790 mm. The soil has an argillic horizon(Bt), which causes perching and lateral flow of waterabove. The soil is typical for the American Midwestclaypan area, and there are about 20 million ha ofagricultural land in central part of the USA with similaredaphic characteristics used for intensive grain produc-tion. Annual carbon circulation for this region canapproach hundreds of millions of tons.

    Sanborn Field plots have been cropped and managedunder specified guidelines simulating regular farmingpractices since the inception of the field (Upchurch et al.1985; Buyanovsky et al. 1990; Brown 1994). Initially, ninecropping practices, using corn, oats, winter wheat, redclover and timothy were used in the experiment. Someplots were under continuous single crops and otherinvolved rotations. The continuum of management prac-ticed on numerous plots of Sanborn Field reflects thehistory of agriculture in the central region of the USA.

    For the analyses reported herein we have used datafrom treatment plots most of which have maintainedtheir integrity throughout the whole period (Table 1).Periodically, some revisions were made in the experi-mental plan of the field, but for the work reported hereonly one change in management was of real importance,that of discontinuation from 1950 onward of the practiceof collecting above-ground residues from plots cultivatedto corn and wheat. Forages (timothy, alfalfa, bromegrass)have always been managed with forage harvested andremoved from the plot.

    Since 1981, we have conducted on Sanborn Field severalsmall-scale field experiments with major regional crops,among them winter wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) and corn(Zea mays) (Buyanovsky & Wagner 1986, 1987, 1997a,1997b; Buyanovsky et al. 1986, 1987, 1994). The experi-ments which employed 14C labelling technique have beendesigned to assess total net annual production of thecrops which includes grain, above-ground biomass at thetime of harvest, and roots (measured several times during

  • C U L T I VA T E D L A N D A N D G L O B A L C A R B O N 133

    Table 1 Cropping systems of Sanborn Field used for analysis of soil organic carbon dynamics

    System Treatment Years under thetreatment

    Continuous wheat Manure (13.4 Mg ha1) 100Full mineral fertilizer 100None 100

    Continuous corn Manure (13.4 Mg ha1) 100Full treatment 50None 100

    Continuous timothy Manure (13.4 Mg ha1) 100None 100

    Corn/Wheat/Clover Manure (13.4 Mg ha1) 60Manure (13.4 Mg ha1) 1 N (37 kg ha1 under wheat, 112 kg ha1 under corn) 40

    a growing season). This information has been used toestimate the relationship between different parts of a crop(grain/TNAP, shoot/root ratio, etc.), and, subsequently, tocalculate the total carbon input under different cropsduring the 1001 year period of the large-scaleexperiments.

    Measurements of soil organic carbon have been takenwith intervals of 1030 years, by dry combustion in apurified stream of oxygen (Nelson & Sommers 1982). Torecalculate organic carbon on soil mass we used detailedbulk density measurements from the 60s and 80s.

    Data analysis

    Total net annual production (TNAP) TNAP of cropscultivated on Sanborn Field have been heavily impactedby many factors, among which the major ones are man-agement, weather and variety. With factors other thanweather progressively improving, TNAP increased(Table 2). The only notable exceptions are plots withoutamendments.

    Application of mineral fertilizers or manure to winterwheat provided a very slow increase in TNAP duringthe first 60 years. During that period, net productionincreased from 2 to 3 Mg C ha1 y1. During thefollowing 40 years, with modernization of cultivationpractices, introduction of genetically improved varietiesand with residues added back, each hectare of wheataccumulated 45 Mg C ha1 y1. Rotation with manureapplied annually supported high productivity during thewhole 100-year period. However, when manure was usedwith mineral fertilizers its effect on TNAP was negligible.

    Manured corn during the first 50 years produced anaverage of about 3.2 Mg C ha1 y1, as compared with2.2 Mg C ha1 y1 for the untreated plot. Corn responseto manure was lower than that for wheat, which doubledTNAP under the effect of manure. In a 3-year rotation(corn, wheat, clover) with manure, annual carbon accu-mulation increased but not very significantly (from about

    1998 Blackwell Science Ltd., Global Change Biology, 4, 131141

    3.3 to 4.2 Mg C ha1 y1) during first 60 years. Applicationof nitrogen was necessary to increase TNAP of corn to910 Mg C ha1 y1.

    TNAP of unfertilized plots practically did not changeduring 100 years. Slightly higher TNAPs of untreatedwheat and corn were observed after 1950, when thepractice of collecting residues was abandoned. On aver-age, nonfertilized wheat accumulated about 11.5 Mg Cha1 y1 during the growing season and corn accumulated1.72.2 Mg C ha1 y1.

    Naturally, TNAP indirectly mirrored the increase ingrain yields. A general progressive yield increase wasobserved from the inception of the experiment, butduring the first 50 years, grain productivity offertilized wheat increased from 0.91 to 1.51.6 Mg ha1

    y1 and in the following 50 years it more than doubledto 4.2 Mg ha1 y1. Productivity of corn in a 3-yearrotation with 13.4 Mg ha1 manure and 112 kg ha1 offertilizer nitrogen increased by 25% during the first50 years and doubled during the later period.

    The early period increases are probably attributableto improved varieties. During the latter period furtherprogress in plant breeding would have accelerated thepositive effect on yield by linking this breeding effort toselection toward fertilizer response and due to betterweed control and improved cultivation practices. In theearly years, plant breeders of wheat improved harvestability of grain by selection of stronger stems and someyears ago they successfully decreased straw length. Theratios of grain yield to vegetative biomass have narrowedonly slightly, however (Buyanovsky & Wagner 1997a).

    Carbon input to soils Sanborn Field was established onan area of tallgrass prairie with a plant cover characterizedby several dominant warm season grasses including bigbluestem (Andropogon gerardi Vitman), little bluestem(Schizacharium scoparium Nash), prairie drop seed (Sporo-bolus heterolepis [A. Gray] A. Gray), and Indian grass(Sorghastrum nutans [L.] Nash). Kucera (1987) estimated

  • 134 G . A . B U YA N O V S K Y & G . H . WA G N E R

    Tab

    le2

    Ave

    rage

    tota

    lne

    tan

    nual

    prod

    ucti

    on(M

    gha

    1of

    C,

    grai

    nin

    clud

    ed)

    ofth

    em

    ajor

    agri

    cult

    ural

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    the

    Cen

    tral

    U.S

    .fo

    rea

    chd

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    ed

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    g10

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    ars

    (as

    repr

    esen

    ted

    bySa

    nbor

    nFi

    eld

    dat

    a)

    Cro

    pTr

    eatm

    ent

    1891

    190

    019

    011

    019

    112

    019

    213

    019

    314

    019

    415

    019

    516

    019

    617

    019

    718

    019

    819

    0

    Whe

    atco

    ntin

    .Fu

    llm

    iner

    .fer

    til.

    2.01

    61.

    292.

    536

    1.58

    1.97

    61.

    073.

    146

    0.89

    3.62

    60.

    703.

    116

    1.47

    4.16

    61.

    665.

    186

    0.78

    5.11

    61.

    064.

    716

    0.77

    Man

    ure

    13.4

    Mg

    ha1

    2.31

    61.

    552.

    216

    1.27

    2.72

    60.

    943.

    146

    1.17

    3.64

    61.

    133.

    136

    1.79

    3.76

    60.

    895.

    786

    1.22

    4.85

    62.

    246.

    746

    2.37

    Non

    e0.

    486

    0.86

    1.27

    61.

    300.

    976

    0.74

    1.20

    61.

    071.

    766

    1.27

    0.43

    60.

    320.

    896

    0.73

    1.83

    61.

    011.

    426

    0.78

    1.39

    60.

    70in

    3-ye

    arro

    tati

    onM

    anur

    e13

    .4M

    gha

    12.

    616

    0.65

    3.1

    60.

    853.

    666

    0.51

    3.12

    60.

    933.

    296

    0.23

    2.44

    61.

    322.

    186

    1.44

    *4.

    496

    0.69

    5.74

    62.

    165.

    096

    1.49

    Cor

    nco

    ntin

    .M

    anur

    e13

    .4M

    gha

    13.

    036

    0.86

    2.86

    61.

    193.

    446

    0.73

    3.28

    60.

    923.

    246

    0.75

    3.74

    61.

    424.

    536

    3.16

    4.11

    61.

    705.

    646

    3.36

    4.78

    61.

    71Fu

    llm

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    62.

    709.

    166

    2.53

    10.5

    26

    2.38

    9.55

    64.

    18Fu

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    n.d

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    .n.

    d.

    n.d

    .6.

    346

    1.95

    8.82

    62.

    07.

    796

    5.23

    8.43

    63.

    72N

    one

    2.26

    60.

    841.

    666

    0.74

    2.29

    60.

    492.

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    0.50

    1.89

    60.

    461.

    716

    0.43

    2.40

    60.

    992.

    176

    0.65

    2.29

    60.

    811.

    536

    0.32

    in3-

    year

    .ro

    tati

    onM

    anur

    e13

    .4M

    gha

    13.

    826

    1.90

    1.96

    60.

    814.

    926

    1.94

    4.75

    60.

    593.

    796

    1.16

    3.30

    60.

    175.

    916

    1.45

    *9.

    686

    1.07

    10.2

    56

    4.67

    11.0

    96

    5.26

    *Sta

    rtin

    gin

    1950

    ,37

    kgha

    1of

    Nw

    asap

    plie

    dun

    der

    whe

    at,1

    12kg

    ha1

    und

    erco

    rn.

    1998 Blackwell Science Ltd., Global Change Biology, 4, 131141

  • C U L T I VA T E D L A N D A N D G L O B A L C A R B O N 135

    annual productivity of this plant community in carbonequivalents as 4.5 Mg C ha1 y1 (2.15 Mg C ha1 y1 ofabove-ground biomass, 2.35 Mg C ha1 y1 below-ground).The vegetation supported a high level of SOM, thatamounted to 10.511.0 kg C m2 y1 in the upper 50 cmlayer, and 1314 kg C m2 y1 in 1 m (Buyanovskyet al. 1987).

    Total net annual production of the crops during thefirst half of this century was much lower than that ofnative prairie (Table 2). Wheat (fertilized or manured)accumulated about 23 Mg C ha1 y1, manured corn 33.7 Mg C ha1 y1. Calculations show that less thanhalf of the accumulated carbon was returned to the soilwith wheat residues and only about 1/3 with corn residues(Table 3). For unfertilized crops usually no more than0.50.7 Mg C ha1 y1 was returned to soil annually (cornwas affected by the lack of nutrients to much higherdegree than wheat).

    From the beginning of 50s, amounts of carbonreturned to the soil increased sharply for two reasons.First of all, TNAP of new varieties more than doubledduring 50s and 60s, and, secondly, old practice ofremoving above-ground residues from the field wasgradually abandoned. Only grain carbon was excludedfrom recycling through the soil (1620% TNAP forwheat, 2530% for corn). As a result, amounts ofcarbon returned to soil increased to 34 Mg C ha1

    y1 under wheat, and to 67 Mg C ha1 y1 under corn.

    Effect of management on carbon dynamics A direct depend-ence was observed, as one would expect, betweenamounts of carbon returned to the soil during 100 yearsand soil organic carbon content (Fig. 1). The annual newcarbon entering the soil came from the crop residues and,in some plots, additionally from manure. From ourcurrent understanding of carbon dynamics, there is noreason to think that manure is more effective for SOM

    Fig. 1 Relationship between amounts of carbon applied duringone hundred years and SOC level for various plots of SanbornField.

    1998 Blackwell Science Ltd., Global Change Biology, 4, 131141

    enhancement than plant residues. The graph suggests,however, that management is very important for carbonsequestration. Results from the different plots fell intotwo groups: those with regular tillage and those underno-till or conservation tillage. With the same applicationrate of carbonaceous materials, no-till plots contain 1.52 kg m2 of SOM carbon more than plots under regulartillage.

    Slopes of the relationships are indicative of the smallportion of residue carbon that passes into the stableSOM pool, and this is less than 1% of inputs for both no-till and regular tillage plots (0.7 and 0.6%, respectively).No-tillage management data yielded a curve with aslightly steeper slope than that for regular tillage,indicating that the former provides conditions moreconducive to humus formation. The values are particu-larly low because most of the residue has been underhumification for a very long period extending to 100 years.For a shorter observation (1020 years) the humificationfactor has been estimated to be 1020% (Buyanovsky &Wagner 1997a). The intercepts of these curves presumablydefine the stable pool of organic carbon (7.2 kg m2 undertillage, 8.7 kg m2 without disturbance) that dates backbeyond 100 years and is subject to little or no turnover.Of the 7 kg m2 of stable carbon in the cultivated plots,about 2 kg m2 in the upper 20 cm of the soil profileconstitutes nearly one-half of the total carbon in theupper profile of cultivated soil (Balesdent et al. 1988).Below that depth nearly all of the carbon has beencharacterized as being very stable with probable meanresidence time greater than 1000 years. Thus, the quantityof soil carbon in excess of 7 kg m2 (up to about 10 kgm2 for the cultivated soil) represents carbon that isrelatively dynamic in character, originating from the cropresidues added to the soil each year and occurs primarilyin the plow layer of the profile.

    All systems used on Sanborn Field show some loss ofcarbon relative to that present 100 years ago in the virginsoil. The greatest losses were observed in plots undernonfertilized monocrops. Soils under both wheat andcorn lost almost half of the initial organic carbon (Fig. 2).The loss was caused by very low carbon return to thesoil from residues (especially before 1950). The annualrate of loss of carbon for the first 25 years of cultivationwas found to be very high: 89 g m2 y1 for wheat and114 g m2 y1 for corn. The rate of loss of SOM carbonin soils receiving manure was about one-half that foruntreated soil (56 and 61 g m2 y1 for wheat andcorn, respectively). Wheat receiving mineral fertilizer lost95 g m2 y1 during the first 25 years of cultivation.

    Since 1950, the above-ground residues were returnedto the soil, and this change in management reversed thedirection of the carbon dynamics. Except nonfertilizedmonocrops, all other plots started to sequester a greater

  • 136 G . A . B U YA N O V S K Y & G . H . WA G N E R

    Tab

    le3

    Am

    ount

    sof

    carb

    onre

    turn

    edan

    nual

    lyw

    ith

    crop

    resi

    due

    toSa

    nbor

    nFi

    eld

    plot

    sd

    urin

    gpe

    riod

    1891

    199

    0(M

    gha

    1of

    C)

    Cro

    pTr

    eatm

    ent

    1891

    190

    019

    011

    019

    112

    019

    213

    019

    314

    019

    415

    019

    516

    019

    617

    019

    718

    019

    819

    0

    Whe

    atco

    ntin

    .M

    anur

    e13

    .4M

    gha

    11.

    006

    0.53

    0.97

    60.

    441.

    076

    0.39

    1.22

    60.

    491.

    486

    0.48

    1.32

    60.

    792.

    126

    0.94

    4.61

    60.

    943.

    896

    1.72

    3.21

    61.

    73Fu

    llm

    iner

    .fe

    rtil

    0.86

    60.

    391.

    116

    0.43

    0.86

    60.

    311.

    186

    0.37

    1.46

    60.

    331.

    416

    0.50

    2.80

    60.

    383.

    986

    0.54

    3.94

    60.

    743.

    656

    0.53

    Non

    e0.

    486

    0.41

    0.52

    60.

    540.

    386

    0.27

    0.56

    60.

    390.

    716

    0.52

    0.18

    60.

    140.

    826

    0.66

    1.62

    60.

    631.

    146

    0.60

    1.12

    60.

    54in

    3-ye

    ar.

    rota

    tion

    Man

    ure

    13.4

    Mg

    ha1

    0.75

    60.

    210.

    956

    0.26

    1.12

    60.

    180.

    976

    0.33

    1.10

    60.

    020.

    886

    0.34

    2.02

    60.

    423.

    186

    0.48

    4.06

    61.

    533.

    661.

    05C

    orn

    cont

    in.

    Man

    ure

    13.4

    Mg

    ha1

    0.84

    60.

    260.

    846

    0.30

    1.09

    60.

    301.

    056

    0.31

    0.88

    60.

    201.

    096

    0.47

    1.35

    61.

    081.

    226

    0.55

    1.69

    61.

    011.

    986

    0.97

    Full

    min

    er.

    fert

    .,re

    g.ti

    lln.

    a.n.

    a.n.

    a.n.

    a.n.

    a.n.

    a.3.

    926

    1.87

    6.33

    61.

    756.

    496

    2.80

    6.60

    62.

    89Fu

    llm

    iner

    .fe

    rt.,

    no-t

    illn.

    a.n.

    a.n.

    a.n.

    a.n.

    a.n.

    a.3.

    946

    1.88

    6.09

    61.

    395.

    386

    3.62

    5.82

    62.

    57N

    one

    0.67

    60.

    290.

    556

    0.26

    0.72

    60.

    170.

    696

    0.18

    0.55

    60.

    130.

    526

    0.14

    0.87

    60.

    380.

    766

    0.29

    0.81

    60.

    280.

    546

    0.15

    in3-

    year

    .ro

    tati

    onM

    anur

    e13

    .4M

    gha

    10.

    86

    10.5

    00.

    396

    0.11

    1.35

    60.

    521.

    026

    0.20

    0.75

    60.

    180.

    706

    0.08

    4.11

    61.

    006.

    736

    0.74

    7.13

    63.

    246.

    686

    4.45

    1998 Blackwell Science Ltd., Global Change Biology, 4, 131141

  • C U L T I VA T E D L A N D A N D G L O B A L C A R B O N 137

    Table 4 Changes in carbon content in upper 20-cm layer ofSanborn Field soils under different managements from 1963to 1988

    Crop, treatment Carbon, Mg ha1

    1963 1988 Change

    Continuous wheatmanure 32.6 42.7 110.1miner. fert. 27.2 36.0 18.8none 25.4 24.4 21.0

    Continuous cornmanure 32.3 37.7 15.4miner. fert., no till 26.7 37.9 111.1miner. fert., convent. till 24.9 32.5 17.6none 21.9 18.2 23.7

    Corn/Wheat/Cloverminer. fert. 27.8 35.9 18.1manure 1 N 30.6 47.0 116.4

    part of the residue carbon after 1950 (Table 4). Wheatreceiving mineral fertilizers accumulated carbon at a rateabout 50 g m2 y1 during the most recent 15 years(197590). A similar rate of carbon sequestration wasobserved under manured wheat. Manured corn accumu-lated carbon during the same period at a much lowerrate (about 20 g m2 y1).

    The virgin soil of Tucker Prairie has more SOM thanso called no-till plots receiving the same amounts ofresidue. This is due to the fact that the latter plotsexperience some kind of disturbance from time to timesuch as reseeding (timothy has been reseeded every5 years) or disking to chop corn stalks. Nevertheless,data also show that it is possible to maintain a carbon levelof cultivated soil close to that of its native counterpart. Thethree year rotation (corn/wheat/clover) with manure

    Fig. 2 Soil organic matter carbondynamics in some Sanborn Field plotswith common monocrops: 1, wheat, notreatment; 2, wheat, full mineralfertilizer; 3, wheat, 13.4 Mg ha1 manure;4, corn, no treatment; 5, corn 13.4 Mgha1 manure; 6, timothy, no treatment; 7,timothy, 13.4 Mg ha1 manure.

    1998 Blackwell Science Ltd., Global Change Biology, 4, 131141

    and nitrogen lost more than 30% of organic carbon in itsupper 20 cm during the first 60 years, and after 1950 itstarted to accumulate organic carbon. By 1988 the carboncontent in this soil to the depth of 1 m was 13.47 kg m2,a value approaching that of the native prairie. Duringthe period from 1962 to 1988 this plot accumulated carbonat the rate of 150 g m2 y1.

    It is important to emphasize that the upper part of thesoil profile experienced the most serious changes incarbon content. Nevertheless, certain amounts of organicmatter have been lost from or gained in the lower partof the soil profile, beyond the plow layer (Fig. 3).

    Regional and global implication

    The annual carbon flux through the terrestrial biosphereis estimated at 45 Pg (Esser 1990). With a global croplandof 1.5 3 109 ha and grassland of 3 3 109 ha ( 30% ofthe earths land surface), agricultural activity makesa very significant input in atmospherebiosphere flux,especially during the early stages of development(Schlesinger 1984; Buringh 1984).

    Agricultural practices tend, generally, to cause a releaseof soil carbon to the atmosphere. Schlesinger (1984)suggested that 36 Pg C have been released from soilsfrom 1860 to the present. There is, however, a growingrecognition that practices of modern agriculture maydiminish carbon losses. The quiet revolution in agricul-ture which occurred after World War II was broughtabout by the introduction of new and more productivevarieties of grain crops along with the wide scale use ofhigh rates of mineral fertilizers. Amounts of crop residuesdramatically increased and, even more importantly, thepractice of removing residues as part of the harvestoperation for small grains was abandoned. Increased

  • 138 G . A . B U YA N O V S K Y & G . H . WA G N E R

    Fig. 3 SOC distribution within the soilprofile for 1915 and 1988: (a) 3-yearrotation. (corn/wheat/clover) with13.4 mg ha1 of manure and nitrogen;(b) corn, no treatment (in 10-cmincrements).

    Fig. 4 Linkage between amounts of carbon applied to the soilwith wheat residues and losses to the atmosphere, showing anet negative flux from the soil before 1950, 0 flux between theearly 50s and late 60s, and a net positive flux to the soil thereafter.Return of carbon to the atmosphere after 1970 was less thanamount accumulated by the crop due to the sequestration in soil.

    input of carbon should lessen the negative effect ofintensive cultivation on SOM level and perhaps allowsequestration of additional amounts of carbon into thesoil. Sauerbeck (1993) postulates a feasible increase in Clevel for existing arable soils in the temperate zones as 1 kg m2 (10 Mg ha1) He estimates that it would take50100 years to reach this new level of SOC. SanbornField experiments show that this goal can be achievedeven in a shorter period with a monocrop (winter wheat)receiving full mineral fertilizer. Corn under conservationtillage can provide even greater carbon sequestration.A rotation plot (corn/wheat/clover) with manure andnitrogen sequestered 16.4 Mg ha1 of carbon during25 years (Table 4). Sauerbecks assumption that existing

    1998 Blackwell Science Ltd., Global Change Biology, 4, 131141

    pool of agricultural land in the temperate zone cansequester about 6.2 Pg of carbon during 50 years looksvery modest on this background and probably can bedoubled.

    Positive changes in carbon dynamics decreasedamounts of CO2 released to the atmosphere. Figure 4illustrates the dynamics of carbon flow in soils underwheat receiving full mineral fertilizers. During the first60 years, soil was loosing organic carbon, first at the rate180 g m2 y1, later at the much slower rate. Small increasein TNAP in the 20s and 30s did not change the directionof the process, soil continued to loose about 2% of SOMper year. In the late 50s and early 60s, when annual inputof carbon to the soil increased, balance between inputand output was reached and then surpassed, so that thesoil started to sequester carbon.

    For the whole area under wheat in the USA amountsof carbon involved in the process of wheat productionalmost tripled (currently at 104 Tg C) with acreagepractically unchanged (Table 5). If the rate of accumula-tion of SOM carbon calculated for Sanborn Field isaccepted for the national wheat production area, about1215 Tg of carbon was sequestered annually during thelast 3 decades.

    Changes in carbon flux through the soils cultivatedunder corn are more significant. Despite the fact that thetotal acreage under corn decreased significantly after1950, TNAP and amounts of postharvest residues morethan tripled between 1950 and 1990. From the early 20sthrough the 50s annual input of carbon varied in thelimits of 1.01.5 Mg C ha1 y1, by 1990 it increased to7 Mg C ha1 y1.

    Assessments of soil organic carbon changes under cornin Central US are complicated by a high rate of erosionunder corn during spring months when the soil is not

  • C U L T I VA T E D L A N D A N D G L O B A L C A R B O N 139

    Table 5 Mean total net annual production (TNAP) andestimated residue carbon for corn and wheat in the USA inrepresentative five year periods (US Department of Commerce1975; US Department of Agriculture 197194)

    Period Harvested TNAP, Tg Postharvestarea, 103 ha residue C, Tg

    Corn190105 38 566 246.1 61.1193135 41 052 221.3 55.2196064 24 250 362.2 90.3197579 28 761 658.3 164.2199094 27 838 804.2 200.6

    Wheat190105 19 035 100.2 27.0193135 20 916 100.7 27.2196064 19 635 181.4 49.0197579 26 411 303.9 82.0199094 25 446 353.2 95.3

    Prior to 1960 about one-half of postharvest residues wereremoved from the small grain fields where they were grown inaccord with current farm management practices. Some of thesewere later returned with manure spread on the field.

    protected by live vegetation. It should be remembered,however, that carbon lost due to the erosion process istied with clay particles and therefore is taken out ofcirculation for a long time.

    Comparison of organic carbon in no-till and conven-tionally cultivated corn plots allowed to approximate thisexclusion of carbon from the regular cycle. After 25 yearsunder conventionally cultivated corn (monocrop) soil onSanborn Field has 3.25 kg m2 of carbon in the upper20 cm layer. A parallel plot with no-till corn has 3.79 kgm2 of carbon. It can be assumed that during 25 years atleast 0.54 kg m2 (or 0.22 Mg C ha1 y1) of organic carbonwas lost from the tilled plot as a result of erosion, whichcorroborates Gantzer et als (1989) calculations. Basedon this assumption, the total carbon eroded from soilscultivated under corn (and therefore taken out fromcirculation) in the USA can be as high as 6 Tg y1. Abovethis loss, conventionally cultivated soil sequestered0.3 Mg C ha1 y1. Together with carbon lost througherosion, 0.52 Mg C ha1 y1 of carbon was incorporatedinto the soil organic matter each year during the period196388, or about 1617 Tg y1 for the total US corn belt.

    Combining the potential of corn and wheat, the annualcarbon sequestered by those crops may be 32 Tg.Although this quantity amounts to 35% of the currentlyassumed imbalance, one has to remember that the areaunder wheat and corn in the USA in 199094 was53 3 106 ha which is less than 10% of the arable soilin temperate region. Observations in other countriesconfirm the probability of carbon sequestration in culti-vated soils and relate them to an increase in quantity of

    1998 Blackwell Science Ltd., Global Change Biology, 4, 131141

    residues. In Canada, Campbell et al. (1995) documentedan increase in carbon content of 0.15 Mg C ha1 y1 insandy loam soil and 0.30.4 Mg C ha1 y1 on a medium-textured soil, which is much higher than Sauerbecks(1993) assumption.

    Simulation and analytical models have been used inmany studies to predict potential soil carbon storage.Cole et al. (1993) emphasize steadily increasing rateof net primary production of agricultural ecosystems.Assuming annual crop increase of 1.5% per year,Donigan et al. (1995) concluded that extrapolation ofcurrent agricultural practices and trends will lead to asequestration of about 1 Pg of carbon within Central USby the year 2030, what is very close to our assessment(32 Tg y1). They presume that nationwide the increasecould be 50% greater.

    Increasing role of reduced cultivation also have to betaken into account. In the late 80s early 90s about 30%of crop land in the USA was under conservation tillage(Kern & Johnson 1993). This practice could increasecarbon sequestration by another 1520%, as our data inTable 4 show. Hunt et al. (1996) found that after 14 yearsof conservation tillage on light soils of Coastal Plain(Eastern USA) carbon content of the plow layer nearlydoubled. Johnson et al. (1995) calculated that increase ofconservation tillage practices to 76% of major crop landarea may result in accumulation of 358 Tg of soil carbonin the USA.

    One more aspect of cropland influence on carbonflux is variability of yields under the effect of climatevariations. It is accepted that agroecosystems have carbonabsorbed in the growing cycle offset by the heterotrophicrespiration during the year. The presumption that thesecomponents of the carbon cycle are equal probably islegitimate for soils in a steady state over a long timeperiod, but when considered year-by-year such a com-pensatory mechanism is less likely. In reality, annualyields of crops vary over wide limits, as does their TNAPand, correspondingly, the amount of carbon absorbedand then released.

    If we consider consumption and release of carbon fora certain period, let us say 198088, we see tremendousvariations in TNAP. Because of this, amounts of carbonabsorbed in one year can be several times greater (orsmaller) than in previous or following year. For instance,extremely low accumulation of carbon by corn on SanbornField in 1980, caused by unfavourable weather conditions,was followed by very high production in 1981. Carbonfor this production could not be offset by mineralizationof small amounts of residues accumulated in 1980. Eachhectare of corn hit by crop failure in the previous year,in 1981 had to borrow about 12 Mg C ha1 of carbonfrom atmosphere. In contrast, in 1983 release of carbonto the atmosphere was much greater than limited con-

  • 140 G . A . B U YA N O V S K Y & G . H . WA G N E R

    sumption next year (4.2 vs. 2.5 Mg ha1). The corn beltof the USA experienced significant crop failures duringthe last decade (1983, 1988). In 1983, for example, har-vested area and total yield were 30% less than in 1982and 1984. Carbon absorption by corn in 1982 and 1984was at least 250 Tg more than in 1983.

    Concluding remarks

    There are good reasons to reconsider the role of cultivatedlands, especially in developed countries with moderateclimate, in evaluating the global carbon balance duringthe second half of the 20th century. Lower productivityof crops than that of natural vegetation has long beenassumed as a postulate. In reality, however, produc-tivity of a modern man-made ecosystem and its nativecounterpart is very close. In Germany the ratio betweenagricultural and natural productivity is close to 1; insome countries (Belgium, Luxembourg) the ratio is above1 (Esser 1990). The same was shown for the USA (Buy-anovsky et al. 1987). Improvements in cultivationmethods, better management and increased quantities ofpostharvest residues returned to the soil have causedvery slow, however, detectable sequestration of carbonin SOM of properly cultivated agricultural land. It isquite probable that at least part of unknown terrestrialsink detected by analyses of the atmospheric gradientsof CO2 and 13CO2 concentrations in Northern hemisphere(Schimel 1996) is none other than the vast pool ofagricultural land in developed countries.

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