Article

Emerging land use practices rapidly increase soil organic matter

  • Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6995 (2015)
  • doi:10.1038/ncomms7995
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Abstract

The loss of organic matter from agricultural lands constrains our ability to sustainably feed a growing population and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Addressing these challenges requires land use activities that accumulate soil carbon (C) while contributing to food production. In a region of extensive soil degradation in the southeastern United States, we evaluated soil C accumulation for 3 years across a 7-year chronosequence of three farms converted to management-intensive grazing. Here we show that these farms accumulated C at 8.0 Mg ha−1 yr−1, increasing cation exchange and water holding capacity by 95% and 34%, respectively. Thus, within a decade of management-intensive grazing practices soil C levels returned to those of native forest soils, and likely decreased fertilizer and irrigation demands. Emerging land uses, such as management-intensive grazing, may offer a rare win–win strategy combining profitable food production with rapid improvement of soil quality and short-term climate mitigation through soil C-accumulation.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Dr Richard Watson (Girard and Seven Oaks farms) and Alan Titschmarsh (Greenstone farm) for their continued cooperation and access to their farmland. We also thank Payton and Pam Sapp for their assistance coordinating with farmer Jimmy Mobley and assisting us in selecting appropriate row crop fields. This study was funded by the US Department of Agriculture’s, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA; Grant no. 2011-57003-30366) through the joint USDA-NASA-DOE Carbon Cycle Science Program.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Odum School of Ecology, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA

    • Megan B. Machmuller
    •  & Aaron Thompson
  2. Soil and Water Science, University of Florida Gainesville, Florida, USA

    • Marc G. Kramer
  3. Crop and Soil Sciences, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA

    • Taylor K. Cyle
    • , Nick Hill
    • , Dennis Hancock
    •  & Aaron Thompson

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Contributions

N.H., M.G.K. and A.T. conceived of the project, with A.T. coordinating project efforts. N.H. and D.H. performed initial site selection and facilitated collaboration with extension agents and farmers. T.K.C., M.B.M, M.G.K., N.H. and A.T. performed the field sampling. T.C. and M.B.M. performed the laboratory analyses, and M.G.K. performed the measurements of C isotopes and abundance. M.B.M led the data analysis and manuscript preparation, to which all other authors contributed.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Aaron Thompson.

Supplementary information

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    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1-7, Supplementary Tables 1-5.

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