, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 59–74 | Cite as

Land-Use Intensity Effects on Soil Organic Carbon Accumulation Rates and Mechanisms

  • A. Stuart GrandyEmail author
  • G. Philip Robertson


Restoring soil C pools by reducing land use intensity is a potentially high impact, rapidly deployable strategy for partially offsetting atmospheric CO2 increases. However, rates of C accumulation and underlying mechanisms have rarely been determined for a range of managed and successional ecosystems on the same soil type. We determined soil organic matter (SOM) fractions with the highest potential for sequestering C in ten ecosystems on the same soil series using both density- and incubation-based fractionation methods. Ecosystems included four annual row-crop systems (conventional, low input, organic and no-till), two perennial cropping systems (alfalfa and poplar), and four native ecosystems (early successional, midsuccessional historically tilled, midsuccessional never-tilled, and late successional forest). Enhanced C storage to 5 cm relative to conventional agriculture ranged from 8.9 g C m−2 y−1 in low input row crops to 31.6 g C m−2 y−1 in the early successional ecosystem. Carbon sequestration across all ecosystems occurred in aggregate-associated pools larger than 53 μm. The density-based fractionation scheme identified heavy-fraction C pools (SOM > 1.6 g cm−3 plus SOM < 53 μm), particularly those in macroaggregates (>250 μm), as having the highest potential C accumulation rates, ranging from 8.79 g C m−2 y−1 in low input row crops to 29.22 g C m−2 y−1 in the alfalfa ecosystem. Intra-aggregate light fraction pools accumulated C at slower rates, but generally faster than in inter-aggregate LF pools. Incubation-based methods that fractionated soil into active, slow and passive pools showed that C accumulated primarily in slow and resistant pools. However, crushing aggregates in a manner that simulates tillage resulted in a substantial transfer of C from slow pools with field mean residence times of decades to active pools with mean residence times of only weeks. Our results demonstrate that soil C accumulates almost entirely in soil aggregates, mostly in macroaggregates, following reductions in land use intensity. The potentially rapid destruction of macroaggregates following tillage, however, raises concerns about the long-term persistence of these C pools.


aggregates agriculture C-sequestration forest C organic tillage succession 



Support for this work was provided by NSF (LTER, DDIG, and REU programs), USDA-CSREES (Sustainable Agriculture and CASMGS programs) and the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station. We thank L. Faber, Brian Rensch, C. Szekely, and S. Warners for assistance in the field and lab and A.T. Corbin for assistance with the C/N analysis. S. K. Hamilton, M. J. Klug, J. C. Neff, and A. J. M. Smucker provided insightful comments on an earlier draft. We are particularly grateful to S. Bohm for his many suggestions regarding the long-term mineralization assays and modeling and to two anonymous reviewers that provided exceptionally thorough and helpful reviews of this manuscript.


  1. Angers DA, Caron J. 1998. Plant-induced changes in soil structure: processes and feedbacks. Biogeochemistry 42:55–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Angers DA, Mehuys GR. 1989. Effects of cropping on carbohydrate content and water-stable aggregation of a clay soil. Can J Soil Sci 69:373–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Arrouays D, Pelissier P. 1994. Changes in carbon storage in temperate humic loamy soils after forest clearing and continuous corn cropping in France. Plant Soil 160:215–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Balesdent J, Chenu C, Balabane M. 2000. Relationship of soil organic matter dynamics to physical protection and tillage. Soil Tillage Res 53:215–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bowman RA, Reeder JD, Lober RW. 1990. Changes in soil properties in a central plains rangeland soil after 3, 20, and 60 years of cultivation. Soil Sci 150:851–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Caldeira K, Morgan MG, Baldocchi D, Brewer PG, Chen CTA, Nabuurs G-J, Nakicenovic N, Robertson GP. 2004. A portfolio of carbon management options. In: Field C, Raupach M, Eds. The global carbon cycle. Washington: Island Press. pp 103–30Google Scholar
  7. Calderón FJ, Jackson LE, Scow KM, Rolston DE. 2001. Short-term dynamics of nitrogen, microbial activity, and phospholipid fatty acids after tillage. Soil Sci Soc Am J 65:118–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. CAST. 2004. Climate change and greenhouse gas mitigation: challenges and opportunities for agriculture. Ames: Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST)Google Scholar
  9. Chaney K, Swift RS. 1984. The influence of organic matter on aggregates in some British soils. J Soil Sci 35:223–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Crum JR, Collins HP. 1995. KBS Soils [Online]. W. K. Kellogg Biological Station Long-Term Ecological Research Project, Michigan State University, Hickory Corners, MI. Available at
  11. Davidson EA, Ackerman IL. 1993. Changes in soil carbon inventories following cultivation of previously untilled soil. Biogeochemistry 20:161–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. De Gryze S, Six J, Paustian K, Morris SJ, Paul EA, Merckx R. 2004. Soil organic carbon pool changes following land-use conversions. Global Change Biol 10:1120–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Denef K, Six J, Paustian K, Merckx R. 2001. Importance of macroaggregate dynamics in controlling soil carbon stabilization: short-term effects of physical disturbance induced by dry-wet cycles. Soil Biol Biochem 33:2145–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Denef K, Six J, Merckx R, Paustian K. 2004. Carbon sequestration in microaggregates of no-tillage soils with different clay mineralogy. Soil Sci Soc Am J 68:1935–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Drinkwater LE, Snapp SS. 2006. Nutrients in agroecosystems: re-thinking the management paradigm. Advances in Agronomy 92:163–186CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Drinkwater LE, Wagoner P, Sarrantonio M. 1998. Legume-based cropping systems have reduced carbon and nitrogen losses. Nature 396:262–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Drury CF, Stone JA, Findlay WI. 1991. Microbial biomass and soil structure associated with corn, grasses and legumes. Soil Sci Soc Am J 55:805–811CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Elliott ET. 1986. Aggregate structure and carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous in native and cultivated soils. Soil Sci Soc Am J 50:627–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Elliott ET, Reuss DE, Palm CA, Monz CA. 1991. Organic matter contained in soil aggregates from a tropical chronosequence: correction for sand and light fraction. Agric Ecosyst Environ 34:443–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Fortuna A, Harwood R, Kizilkaya K, Paul EA. 2003. Optimizing nutrient availability and potential carbon sequestration. Soil Biol Biochem 35:1005–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Franzluebbers AJ, Steiner JL. 2002. Climatic influences on C storage with no tillage. In: Kimble JM, Lal R, Follett RF, Eds. Agriculture practices and policies for carbon sequestration in soil. Boca Raton: CRC Press. pp 71–86Google Scholar
  22. Gale WJ, Cambardella CA, Bailey TB. 2000. Surface residue- and root-derived carbon in stable and unstable aggregates. Soil Sci Soc Am J 64:196–201CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Golchin A, Oades JM, Skjemstad JO, Clarke P. 1994. Soil structure and carbon cycling. Aust J Soil Res 32:1043–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Grandy AS, Robertson GP. 2006a. Aggregation and organic matter protection following cultivation of an undisturbed soil profile. Soil Sci Soc Am J 70:1398–1406CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Grandy AS, Robertson GP. 2006b. Initial cultivation of a temperate-region soil immediately accelerates aggregate turnover and CO2 and N2O fluxes. Global Change Biol 12:1507–1520CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Grandy AS, Porter GA, Erich MS. 2002. Organic amendment and rotation crop effects on the recovery of soil organic matter and aggregation in potato cropping systems. Soil Sci Soc Am J 66:1311–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Grandy AS, Loecke TD, Parr S, Robertson GP. 2006a. Long-term trends in nitrous oxide emissions, soil nitrogen, and crop yields of till and no-till cropping systems. J Environ Qual 35:1487–1495PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Grandy AS, Robertson GP, Thelan KD. 2006b. Do environmental and productivity tradeoffs justify periodically cultivating no-till cropping systems? Agron J 98: 1377–1383CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Haynes RJ, Beare MH. 1996. Aggregation and organic matter storage in meso-thermal, humid agricultural soils. In: Carter MR, Stuart BA, Eds. Structure and organic matter storage in agricultural soils. New York: CRC Press. pp 213–62Google Scholar
  30. Jarecki MK, Lal R, James R. 2005. Crop management effects on soil carbon sequestration on selected farmers’ fields in northeastern Ohio. Soil Tillage Res 81:265–76. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Jastrow JD. 1996. Soil aggregate formation and the accrual of particulate and mineral-associated organic matter. Soil Biol Biochem 28:665–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Jastrow JD, Boutton TW, Miller RM. 1996. Carbon dynamics of aggregate-associated organic matter estimated by carbon−13 natural abundance. Soil Sci Soc Am J 60:801–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Jenkinson DS, Rayner JH. 1977. The turnover of soil organic matter in some of the Rothamstead classical experiments. Soil Sci 123:298–305CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kavdir Y, Smucker AJM. 2005. Soil aggregate sequestration of cover crop root and shoot-derived nitrogen. Plant Soil 272:263–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. KBS LTER. 2005. W.K. Kellogg Biological Station Long-Term Ecological Research Project, KBS LTER, Hickory Corners, MI. Available at
  36. Lal R, Griffin M, Apt J, Lave L, Morgan MG. 2004. Managing soil carbon. Science 304:393–393PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. MacRae RJ, Mehuys GR. 1985. The effects of green manuring on the physical properties of temperate-area soils. Adv Soil Sci 3:71–94Google Scholar
  38. Marland G, Fruit K, Sedjo R. 2001. Accounting for sequestered carbon: the question of permanence. Environ Sci Policy 4:259–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Martens DA. 2000. Plant residue biochemistry regulates soil carbon cycling and carbon sequestration. Soil Biol Biochem 32:361–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Mikha MM, Rice CW. 2004. Tillage and manure effects on soil and aggregate-associated carbon and nitrogen. Soil Sci Soc Am J 68:809–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Molloy LF, Speir TW. 1977. Studies on a climosequence of soils in tussock grasslands. 12. Constituents of soil light fraction. N Z J Sci 20:167–77Google Scholar
  42. Oades JM. 1984. Soil organic matter and structural stability: mechanisms and implications for management. Plant Soil 76:319–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Pacala S, Socolow R. 2004. Stabilization wedges: solving the climate problem for the next 50 years with current technologies. Science 305:968–72PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Park EJ, Smucker AJM. 2005. Erosive strengths of concentric regions within soil macroaggregates. Soil Sci Soc Am J 69:1912–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Paul EA, Follett RF, Leavitt SW, Halvorson A, Peterson GA, Lyon DJ. 1997. Radiocarbon dating for determination of soil organic matter pool sizes and dynamics. Soil Sci Soc Am J 61:1058–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Paul EA, Morris SJ, Bohm S. 2001. The determination of soil C pool sizes and turnover rates: biophysical fractionation and tracers. In: Lal R, Ed. Assessment methods for soil carbon. Boca Raton: Lewis Publishers. pp 193–206Google Scholar
  47. Paustian K, Six J, Elliott ET, Hunt HW. 2000. Management options for reducing CO2 emissions from agricultural soils. Biogeochemistry 48:147–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Perfect E, Kay BD, van Loon WPK, Sheard RW, Pojasok T. 1990. Rates of change in soil structural stability under forages and corn. Soil Sci Soc Am J 54:179–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Plante AF, McGill WB. 2002. Soil aggregate dynamics and the retention of organic matter in laboratory-incubated soil with differing simulated tillage frequencies. Soil Tillage Res 66:79–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Puget P, Lal R. 2005. Soil organic carbon and nitrogen in a Mollisol in central Ohio as affected by tillage and land use. Soil Tillage Res 80:201–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Puget P, Chenu C, Balesdent J. 1995. Total and young organic-matter distributions in aggregates of silty cultivated soils. Eur J Soil Sci 46:449–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Roberson EB, Sarig S, Firestone MK. 1991. Cover-crop management of polysaccharide-mediated aggregation in an orchard soil. Soil Sci Soc Am J 55:734–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Robertson GP, Klingensmith KM, Klug MJ, Paul EA, Crum JR, Ellis BG. 1997. Soil resources, microbial activity, and primary production across an agricultural ecosystem. Ecol Appl 7:158–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Robertson GP, Wedin D, Groffman PM, Blair JM, Holland EA, Nadelhoffer KJ, Harris D. 1999. Soil carbon and nitrogen availability: nitrogen mineralization, nitrification, and soil respiration potentials. In: Robertson GP, Coleman DC, Bledsoe CS, Sollins P, Eds. Standard soil methods for long-term ecological research. New York: Oxford University Press. pp 258–71Google Scholar
  55. Robertson GP, Paul EA, Harwood RR. 2000. Greenhouse gases in intensive agriculture: contributions of individual gases to the radiative forcing of the atmosphere. Science 289:1922–5PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Sanchez JE, Harwood RR, Willson TC, Kizilkaya K, Smeenk J, Parker E, Paul EA, Knezek BD, Robertson GP. 2004. Managing soil carbon and nitrogen for productivity and environmental quality. Agron J 96:769–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Saxton AM. 1998. A macro for converting mean separation output to letter groupings in Proc Mixed. In: Proceedings of the 23rd SAS Users Group Intl, SAS Institute, Nashville, pp 1243–6Google Scholar
  58. Shaver TM, Peterson GA, Sherrod LA. 2003. Cropping intensification in dryland systems improves soil physical properties: regression relations. Geoderma 116:149–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Six J, Elliott ET, Paustian K, Doran JW. 1998. Aggregation and soil organic matter accumulation in cultivated and native grassland soils. Soil Sci Soc Am J 62:1367–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Six J, Elliott ET, Paustian K. 1999. Aggregate and soil organic matter dynamics under conventional and no-tillage systems. Soil Sci Soc Am J 63:1350–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Six J, Paustian K, Elliott ET, Combrink C. 2000. Soil structure and organic matter: I. Distribution of aggregate-size classes and aggregate-associated carbon. Soil Sci Soc Am J 64:681–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Six J, Ogle SM, Breidt FJ, Conant RT, Mosier AR, Paustian K. 2004. The potential to mitigate global warming with no-tillage management is only realized when practised in the long term. Global Change Biol 10:155–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Smith P. 2004. Carbon sequestration in croplands: the potential in Europe and the global context. Eur J Agron 20:229–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Snapp SS, Swinton SM, Labarta R, Mutch D, Black JR, Leep R, Nyiraneza J, O’Neil K. 2005. Evaluating cover crops for benefits, costs and performance within cropping system niches. Agron J 97:322–32Google Scholar
  65. Strickland TC, Sollins P. 1987. Improved method for separating light- and heavy-fraction organic material from soil. Soil Sci Soc Am J 51:1390–3CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Swanston CW, Caldwell BA, Homann PS, Ganio L, Sollins P. 2002. Carbon dynamics during a long-term incubation of separate and recombined density fractions from seven forest soils. Soil Biol Biochem 34:1121–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Tisdall JM, Oades JM. 1982. Organic matter and water-stable aggregates in soils. J Soil Sci 33:141–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. VandenBygaart AJ, Kay B. 2004. Persistence of soil organic carbon after plowing a long-term no-till field in southern Ontario, Canada. Soil Sci Soc Am J 68:1394–402CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Wander MM, Yang XM. 2000. Influence of tillage on the dynamics of loose- and occluded-particulate and humified organic matter fractions. Soil Biol Biochem 32:1151–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Wander MM, Traina SJ, Stinner BR, Peters SE. 1994. Organic and conventional management effects on biologically active soil organic matter pools. Soil Sci Soc Am J 58:1130–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. West TO, Post WM. 2002. Soil organic carbon sequestration rates by tillage and crop rotation: a global data analysis. Soil Sci Soc Am J 66:1930–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Wright AL, Hons FM. 2004. Soil aggregation and carbon and nitrogen storage under soybean cropping sequences. Soil Sci Soc Am J 68:507–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.W.K. Kellogg Biological Station and Department of Crop and Soil SciencesMichigan State UniversityHickory CornersUSA
  2. 2.Department of Geological SciencesUniversity of Colorado at BoulderBoulderUSA

Personalised recommendations