Main content area

Accumulation of soil carbon under zero tillage cropping and perennial vegetation on the Liverpool Plains, eastern Australia

Young, R.R., Wilson, B., Harden, S., Bernardi, A.
Soil research 2009 v.47 no.3 pp. 273-285
aboveground biomass, alfalfa, biomass production, carbon, carbon sequestration, carbon sinks, climate, continuous cropping, farmers, farms, field experimentation, grasses, greenhouse gas emissions, no-tillage, pastures, rain, soil, soil organic carbon, vegetation, watersheds, New South Wales, Queensland
Australian agriculture contributes an estimated 16% of all national greenhouse gas emissions, and considerable attention is now focused on management approaches that reduce net emissions. One area of potential is the modification of cropping practices to increase soil carbon storage. Here, we report short-medium term changes in soil carbon under zero tillage cropping systems and perennial vegetation, both in a replicated field experiment and on nearby farmers' paddocks, on carbon-depleted Black Vertosols in the upper Liverpool Plains catchment. Soil organic carbon stocks (CS) remained unchanged under both zero tillage long fallow wheat-sorghum rotations and zero tillage continuous winter cereal in a replicated field experiment from 1994 to 2000. There was some evidence of accumulation of CS under intensive (>1crop/year) zero tillage response cropping. There was significant accumulation of CS (~0.35Mg/ha.year) under 3 types of perennial pasture, despite removal of aerial biomass with each harvest. Significant accumulation was detected in the 0-0.1, 0.1-0.2, and 0.2-0.4m depth increments under lucerne and the top 2 increments under mixed pastures of lucerne and phalaris and of C3 and C4 perennial grasses. Average annual rainfall for the period of observations was 772mm, greater than the 40-year average of 680mm. A comparison of major attributes of cropping systems and perennial pastures showed no association between aerial biomass production and accumulation rates of CS but a positive correlation between the residence times of established plants and accumulation rates of CS. CS also remained unchanged (1998/2000-07) under zero tillage cropping on nearby farms, irrespective of paddock history before 1998/2000 (zero tillage cropping, traditional cropping, or ~10 years of sown perennial pasture). These results are consistent with previous work in Queensland and central western New South Wales suggesting that the climate (warm, semi-arid temperate, semi-arid subtropical) of much of the inland cropping country in eastern Australia is not conducive to accumulation of soil carbon under continuous cropping, although they do suggest that CS may accumulate under several years of healthy perennial pastures in rotation with zero tillage cropping.