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Spatial and long-term variability of soil loss due to crop harvesting and the importance relative to water erosion: A case study from Belgium

Ruysschaert, G., Poesen, J., Notebaert, B., Verstraeten, G., Govers, G.
Agriculture, ecosystems & environment 2008 v.126 no.3-4 pp. 217-228
root vegetables, vegetable crops, Beta vulgaris, sugar beet, sugar crops, water erosion, soil degradation, harvesting, spatial variation, temporal variation, case studies, crop yield, mechanical harvesting, Belgium
The harvest of crops such as sugar beet (Beta vulgaris L.), potato (Solanum tuberosum L.), leek (Allium porrum L.) and carrot (Daucus carota L.) causes soil loss from arable land because soil adhering to the crop and soil clods that failed to be separated by the harvesting machine, are exported from the field together with these harvested crops. These soil losses can be of the same order of magnitude as soil losses caused by water erosion processes, but are often neglected in soil erosion research. In this article we developed a methodology to investigate the spatial and long-term (1846-2004) variability of soil loss due to crop harvesting (SLCH) in Belgium and the spatial distribution of the importance of SLCH relative to soil losses caused by water erosion processes in Flanders. The study is based on long-term time series of soil tare data of crop processing factories and area and crop yield statistics. Until the middle of the 20th century, potato and roots and tubers grown as second crop, had the largest share in the SLCH-crop growing area in Belgium. Sugar beet gained importance from the end of the 19th century onwards and has now, of all SLCH crops, the largest growing area. We could estimate that, partly due to increasing crop yields and the mechanisation of the harvesting process, SLCH per hectare of cropland increased from 0.4Mgha⁻¹ year⁻¹ in 1846 to 2.4Mgha⁻¹ year⁻¹ in the 1970s and early 1980s. Since then mean annual soil losses decreased again to 1.8Mgha⁻¹ year⁻¹ in 2004. It was assessed that total yearly SLCH in Belgium rose from more than 575,000Mg in the middle of the 19th century to more than 1.7x10⁶ Mg in the 1970s and early 1980s, while current SLCH values are 1.4x10⁶ Mg. We estimated that since 1846, more than 163x10⁶ Mg soil was exported from cropland in Belgium through this erosion process, which corresponds to 109hm³ or an average soil profile truncation of 1.15cm. Average sediment export from cropland in Flanders was 3.7Mgha⁻¹ year⁻¹ in 2002, of which 46% was due to SLCH and 54% was due to water erosion processes. The relative importance of SLCH varied, depending on the agricultural region, between 38% and 94%.