Soil fertility and nutrients mediate soil carbon dynamics following residue incorporation

  • Elizabeth C. Coonan
  • Alan E. RichardsonEmail author
  • Clive A. Kirkby
  • John A. Kirkegaard
  • Martin R. Amidy
  • Craig L. Strong
Original Article


A substantial proportion of soil carbon (C) is commonly lost following cultivation of soil and in the transition of pastures to crops. Incorporation of plant residues with nutrient addition (nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur) may reduce these losses. We investigated the impact of initial soil fertility and supplementary nutrient addition on breakdown of sugarcane residue and associated changes in soil C following a pasture to crop transition. The legume-based pasture was previously managed with fertilizer to develop soils with high and low C. The soils were cultivated with sugarcane mulch (10 Mg ha−1), a C4 crop residue that enabled isotopic 13C tracking, with or without nutrients and sown to a triticale crop [TriticaleTriticosecale)]. Higher soil fertility with additional nutrients reduced the decrease in total soil C as a proportion of the initial C (14.9% compared to 21.8% without nutrients) to 100 mm depth. Supplementary nutrient addition also resulted in lower physical recovery of sugarcane mulch after 105 days (38.2% in high fertility with nutrients, compared to 97% recovery in low fertility no-nutrient). A larger decline of 13C from the total soil in the high fertility nutrient treatment was similarly observed, compared to low fertility without nutrients (decreases of 47 and 38 mg 13C kg−1 soil, respectively). More fertile pastures with tactical nutrient addition was an effective means for reducing the loss of C during transition to crop.


Tillage Nutrient stoichiometry Isotopic signature Carbon dynamics 13C abundance Land use change 



ECC is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship, an ANU Dean’s Merit HDR Supplementary Scholarship in Science and a CSIRO postgraduate scholarship. We thank Robert Clark for initial statistical advice. We thank Tony Swan, Brad Rheinheimer, Melanie Bullock and Asta Hooge Poulsen for assistance with the soil sampling and harvest cuts. We thank John Graham, Mick Neave, Tony Swan, Brad Rheinheimer, Melanie Bullock and Scott McDonald for assistance with setting up and maintaining the field experiment. We thank Bounnaliam Thammavongsa, Nell Peisley and John Gouzos for assistance with soil nutrient analyses. Richard Simpson is thanked for his work in designing and maintaining the long-term Wallaroo P fertilizer experiment. Staff at CSIRO Ginninderra Experiment Station are thanked for assistance in maintaining the long-term Wallaroo P fertilizer experiment and for assistance with maintaining the tillage field experiment.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

10705_2019_10037_MOESM1_ESM.docx (669 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 668 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CSIRO Agriculture and FoodCanberraAustralia
  2. 2.Fenner School of Environment and SocietyAustralian National UniversityActonAustralia

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