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Reduced tillage in organic farming affects soil organic carbon stocks in temperate Europe

For decades, conservation tillage has been promoted as a measure to increase carbon stocks in arable soils. Since organic farming improves soil quality and soil carbon storage, reduced tillage under organic farming conditions may further enhance this potential. Therefore, we assessed soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks of reduced tillage compared with mouldboard ploughing in nine organic farming field trials in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland with the same sampling and analytical protocol. We sampled soil cores until a depth of 100 cm to determine soil carbon stocks that are relevant for climate change mitigation but are often overlooked in tillage studies with shallow sampling depths. The studied field experiments were between 8 and 21 years old and comprised different soil types with clay contents ranging from 10% to 50%. SOC stocks increased with increasing clay-to-silt ratio, precipitation and organic fertiliser input. Across sites, reduced tillage in comparison with ploughing increased SOC stocks in the surface layer (0–10/15 cm) by 20.8% or 3.8 Mg ha-1, depleted SOC stocks in the intermediate soil layers to 50 cm soil depth with a maximum depletion of 6.6% or 1.6 Mg ha-1 in 15/ 20–30 cm and increased SOC stocks in the deepest (70–100 cm) soil layer by 14.4% or 2.5 Mg ha-1. The subsoil SOC stock increase may be linked to the inherent soil heterogeneity. Cumulative SOC stocks increased by 1.7% or 1.5 Mg ha-1 (0–50 cm, n = 9) and 3.6% or 4.0 Mg ha-1 (0–100 cm, n = 7) by reduced tillage compared with ploughing with estimated mean C sequestration rates of 0.09 and 0.27 Mg ha-1yr-1, respectively. There was no effect of field trial duration on tillage induced cumulative SOC stocks differences. Under reduced tillage, biomass production was 8% lower resulting in a decrease of crop C input by 6%. However, this reduction may have been outbalanced by increased C inputs from weed biomass resulting from a higher weed incidence in reduced tillage, which warrants further research. Thus, reduced tillage in organic farming has the potential to increase total SOC stocks, while crop management has to be improved to increase productivity.

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