, Volume 22, Issue 5, pp 1088–1094 | Cite as

Does Grazing Matter for Soil Organic Carbon Sequestration in the Western North American Great Plains?

  • Justin D. DernerEmail author
  • David J. Augustine
  • Douglas A. Frank


Considerable uncertainty remains regarding grazing-induced influences on soil organic carbon (SOC) sequestration in semiarid grassland ecosystems due to three important complications associated with studying such effects: (1) Ecologically meaningful shifts in SOC pools attributable to grazing are difficult to detect relative to inherently large grassland SOC pools, (2) a lack of baseline (pre-treatment) data, and (3) frequent lack of or limited replication of long-term grazing manipulations. SOC sequestration rates were determined in 74-year-old grazing exclosures and paired moderately grazed sites, established across a soil texture gradient, in the western North American shortgrass steppe in northeastern Colorado. We sampled soils (0–20 cm) from 12 exclosures and paired grazed sites to measure SOC concentration and soil radiocarbon ∆14C (‰); the latter allowed us to determine turnover of the SOC pool over a 7-decade period in the presence versus the absence of grazing. Removal of grazing for more than 7 decades substantially altered plant community composition but did not affect total soil C, SOC, soil ∆14C, SOC turnover rate, or total soil N. Grazing effect also did not interact with soil texture to influence any of those soil properties. Soil texture (silt + clay content) did influence total soil C and SOC, and total soil N, but not ∆14C or SOC turnover. Results provide evidence that long-term removal of grazing from semiarid grassland ecosystems in the western North American Great Plains does not enhance long-term SOC sequestration, despite changes in the relative dominance of C3 versus C4 grasses.


cattle grazing semiarid rangeland shortgrass steppe soil carbon soil radiocarbon soil carbon turnover 



We thank Nick Dufek and Matt Mortenson for leading the sampling and processing of soil samples, and Matt Mortenson for assistance with statistical analyses and developing the figures. We appreciate the provision of livestock for grazing by the Crow Valley Livestock Cooperative, Inc. Funding was provided by the USDA-Agricultural Research Service.


  1. Abdalla M, Hastings A, Chadwick DR, Jones DL, Evans CD, Jones MB, Rees RM, Smith P. 2018. Critical review of the impacts of grazing intensity on soil organic carbon storage and other soil quality indicators in extensively managed grasslands. Agric Ecosyst Environ 253:62–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Augustine DJ, Derner JD, Milchunas D, Blumenthal D, Porensky LM. 2017. Grazing mediates increases in C3 grass abundance over seven decades across a soil texture gradient in shortgrass steppe. J Veg Sci. Scholar
  3. Bement RE. 1969. A stocking rate guide for beef production on blue-grama range. J Range Manag 22:83–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bouyoucos GJ. 1962. Hydrometer method improved for making particle size analyses of soils. Agron J 54:464–5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Burke IC, Lauenroth WK, Vinton MA, Hook PB, Kelly RH, Epstein HE, Aguiar MR, Robles MD, Aguilera MO, Murphy KL, Gill RA. 1998. Plant-soil interactions in temperate grasslands. Biogeochemistry 42:121–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Burke IC, Lauenroth WK, Riggle R, Brannen P, Madigan B, Beard S. 1999. Spatial variability of soil properties in the shortgrass steppe: the relative importance of topography, grazing, microclimate, and plant species in controlling spatial patterns. Ecosystems 2:422–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Chen M, Parton WJ, DelGrosso SJ, Hartman MD, Day KA, Tucker CJ, Derner JD, Knapp AK, Smith WK, Ojima DS, Gao W. 2017. The signature of sea surface temperature anomalies on the dynamics of semiarid grassland productivity. Ecosphere. Scholar
  8. Derner JD, Schuman GE. 2007. Carbon sequestration and rangelands: a synthesis of land management and precipitation effects. J Soil Water Conserv 62:77–85.Google Scholar
  9. Frank DA, Pontes AW, McFarlane KJ. 2012. Controls on soil organic carbon stocks and turnover among North American ecosystems. Ecosystems 15:604–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Frank DA, DePriest T, McLauchlan K, Risch AC. 2011. Topographic and ungulate regulation of soil C turnover in a temperate grassland ecosystem. Glob Change Biol 17:495–504.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Graven H. 2008. Advancing the use of radiocarbon in studies of global and regional carbon cycling with high precision measurements of 14C in CO2 from the Scripps CO2 Program. Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Ph.D. thesis. San Diego: University of California.Google Scholar
  12. Hart RH, Ashby MM. 1998. Grazing intensities, vegetation and heifer gains: 55 years on shortgrass. J Range Manag 51:392–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Holechek JL. 2013. Global trends in population, energy use and climate: implications for policy development, rangeland management, and rangeland users. Rangel J 35:117–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Holechek JL, Pieper RD, Herbel CH. 2011. Range management: principles and practices. 6th edn. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall/Person Inc.Google Scholar
  15. Ihori T, Burke IC, Lauenroth WK, Coffin DP. 1995. Effects of cultivation and abandonment on soil organic matter in northeastern Colorado. Soil Sci Soc Am J 59:1112–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Ingram LJ, Stahl PD, Schuman GE, Buyer JS, Vance GF, Ganjegunte GK, Welker JM, Derner JD. 2008. Grazing impacts on soil carbon and microbial communities in a mixed-grass ecosystem. Soil Sci Soc Am J 72:939–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Irisarri JGN, Derner JD, Porensky LM, Augustine DJ, Reeves JL, Mueller KE. 2016. Grazing intensity differentially regulates ANPP response to precipitation in North American semiarid grasslands. Ecol Appl 26:1370–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Kelly EF, Blecker SW, Yonker CM, Olson CG, Wohl EE, Todd LC. 1998. Stable isotope composition of soil organic matter and phytoliths as paleoenvironmental indicators. Geoderma 82:59–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Lauenroth WL. 2008. Vegetation of the shortgrass steppe. Ecology of the shortgrass steppe: a long-term perspective. Lauenroth WK, Burke IC, Eds. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp 70–83.Google Scholar
  20. Levin I, Kromer B. 2004. The tropospheric 14CO2 level in midlatitudes of the northern hemisphere (1959–2003). Radiocarbon 46:1261–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Liang Y, Hazlett DL, Lauenroth WK. 1989. Biomass dynamics and water use efficiencies of five plant communities in the shortgrass steppe. Oecologia 80:148–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. McSherry ME, Ritchie ME. 2013. Effects of grazing on grassland soil carbon: a global review. Glob Change Biol 19:1347–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Milchunas DG, Forwood JR, Lauenroth WK. 1994. Productivity of long-term grazing treatments in response to seasonal precipitation. J Range Manag 47:133–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Morgan JA, Parton W, Derner JD, Gilmanov TG, Smith DP. 2016. Importance of early season conditions and grazing on carbon dioxide fluxes in Colorado shortgrass steppe. Rangel Ecol Manag 69:342–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Parton W, Schimel DS, Cole CV, Ojima DS. 1987. Analysis of factors controlling soil organic matter levels in Great Plains grasslands. Soil Sci Soc Am J 51:1173–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Pineiro G, Paruelo JM, Oesterheld M, Jobbagy EG. 2010. Pathways of grazing effects on soil organic carbon and nitrogen. Rangeland Ecology and Management 63:109–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Porensky LM, Derner JD, Augustine DJ, Milchunas DG. 2016. Plant community composition after 75 yr of sustained grazing intensity treatments in shortgrass steppe. Rangel Ecol Manag 70:456–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Reeder JD, Schuman GE. 2002. Influence of livestock grazing on C sequestration in semi-arid mixed-grass and short-grass rangelands. Environ Pollut 116:457–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Reeder JD, Schuman GE, Morgan JA, LeCain DR. 2004. Response of organic and inorganic carbon and nitrogen to long-term grazing of the shortgrass steppe. Environ Manag 33:485–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Schuman GE, Reeder JD, Manley JT, Hart RH, Manley WA. 1999. Impact of grazing management on the carbon and nitrogen balance of a mixed-grass rangeland. Ecol Appl 9:65–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Sokal RR, Rohlf FJ. 1995. Biometry. New York: WH Freeman and Company.Google Scholar
  32. Svejcar T, Angell R, Bradford JA, Dugas W, Emmerich W, Frank AB, Gilmanov T, Johnson DA, Mayeux H, Mielnick P, Morgan J, Saliendra NZ, Schuman GE, Sims PL, Snyder K. 2008. Carbon fluxes on North American rangelands. Rangel Ecol Manag 61:465–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Torn MS, Vitousek PM, Trumbore SE. 2005. The influence of nutrient availability on soil organic matter turnover estimated by incubations and radiocarbon modeling. Ecosystems 8:352–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Trumbore SE. 1993. Comparison of the carbon dynamics in tropical and temperate soils using radiocarbon measurements. Glob Biogeochem Cycles 7:275–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Zhang L, Wylie BK, Ji L, Gilmanov TG, Tieszen LL. 2010. Climate-driven interannual variability in net ecosystem exchange in the Northern Great Plains grasslands. Rangel Ecol Manag 63:40–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York (This is a U.S. government work and not under copyright protection in the U.S.; foreign copyright protection may apply) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Justin D. Derner
    • 1
    Email author
  • David J. Augustine
    • 2
  • Douglas A. Frank
    • 3
  1. 1.USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Rangeland Resources and Systems Research UnitCheyenneUSA
  2. 2.USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Rangeland Resources and Systems Research UnitFort CollinsUSA
  3. 3.Department of BiologySyracuse UniversitySyracuseUSA

Personalised recommendations