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Long-term impact of farming practices on soil organic carbon and nitrogen pools and microbial biomass and activity

Wang, Yi, Tu, Cong, Cheng, Lei, Li, Chunyue, Gentry, Laura F., Hoyt, Greg D., Zhang, Xingchang, Hu, Shuijin
Soil & tillage research 2011 v.117 pp. 8-16
Festuca, Food and Agriculture Organization, carbon dioxide, carbon sinks, conventional tillage, farming systems, fractionation, grasses, grasslands, humid zones, long term experiments, microbial activity, microbial biomass, no-tillage, soil density, soil fertility, soil organic carbon, soil texture, sustainable agriculture, Appalachian region, North Carolina
Conventional agriculture with intensive tillage and high inputs of synthetic chemicals has critically depleted the soil C pools. Alternative practices such as no-tillage and organic inputs have been shown to increase soil C content. However, the long-term impact of these practices on soil C pools was not fully understood under humid and warm climate conditions such as the southeast USA. We hypothesized that a combination of sustainable production practices will result in greater microbial biomass and activity and soil organic C than any individual practice. To test this hypothesis, we conducted a long-term experiment examining how different farming practices affect soil C and N pools and microbial biomass and activities in a fine-sandy loam (FAO: Acrisol) in the southern Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, USA. The experiment was a randomized complete design with four replications. Six management treatments, i.e., tillage with no chemical or organic inputs (Control, TN), tillage with chemical inputs (TC), tillage with organic inputs (TO), no-tillage with chemical inputs (NC), no-tillage with organic inputs (NO), and fescue grasses (FG), were designed. Organic C and N pools and microbial properties in 0–15cm soils were markedly different after 15 years of continuous treatments. Both no tillage and organic inputs significantly promoted soil microbial biomass by 63–139% and 54–126%; also microbial activity increased by 88–158% and 52–117%, respectively. Corresponding increases of soil organic C by 83–104% and 19–32%, and soil organic N by 77–94% and 20–32% were measured. The combination of no tillage and organic management increased soil organic C by 140% over the conventional tillage control, leading to a soil C content comparable to an un-disturbed grassland control. No tillage reduced the proportion of organic C in the light fraction with d<1.0gcm⁻³ (from 1.53–3.39% to 0.80–1.09%), and increased the very heavy fraction with d>1.6gcm⁻³ (from 95% to 98%). Organic inputs, however, had little impact on C distribution among different density fractions of the soil except light fraction in tillage treatment. Over all, no-tillage practices exerted greater influence on microbial biomass levels and activity and soil organic C levels and fractionations than organic inputs. Our results support the hypothesis and indicate that management decisions including reducing tillage and increasing organic C inputs can enhance transformation of soil organic C from the labile into stable pools, promote soil C accumulation, improve soil fertility and while mitigate atmospheric CO₂ rise.