The University of Arizona

Soil carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus in modified rangeland communities.

J.K. Whalen, W.D. Willms, J.F. Dormaar


Rangelands contain between 10 and 30% of global soil organic C reserves and may be an important sink for atmospheric CO2, but less C tends to be stored in rangelands cultivated for agricultural use than undisturbed rangelands. Establishing perennial plant communities on formerly cultivated rangelands is expected to stabilize soil properties and increase the amount of C stored in rangeland soils, but there is little information on what plant communities are most effective at building soil C reserves. The purpose of this study was to compare soil C, N, and P pools in ungrazed native rangelands with ungrazed, unfertilized rangelands that were cultivated and then 1) abandoned, 2) seeded with non-native perennial grasses or legumes, or 3) cropped annually for 5 to 6 years. Three study sites in southern Alberta, Canada with native Stipa-Bouteloua, Stipa-Bouteloua-Agropyron and Festuca campestris plant communities represented the major ecotypes of the Northern Great Plains. The total C, N, and P content of rangeland soils were greatest at the Festuca campestris site, followed by the Stipa-Bouteloua-Agropyron and Stipa-Bouteloua sites, probably due to climatic conditions (precipitation and temperature). Generally, soils under modified plant communities contained less total C and N than soils under native rangeland, but the total P content was related more to site preparation than experimental treatments. Soils under alfalfa, orchardgrass and bromegrass tended to have more total C and N than soils cultivated annually in continuous wheat or wheat-fallow systems. The accumulation of C and N in soils under permanent cover was not related to net primary productivity and may be influenced more by the chemical composition and rate of decomposition of plant residues.



permanent grasslands;fields;primary productivity;soil nutrient dynamics;carbon sequestration;Alberta;rangelands

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