Long-term nutrient fertilization and the carbon balance of permanent grassland: any evidence for sustainable intensification?

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Fornara, Dario A. ; Wasson, Elizabeth-Anne ; Christie, Peter ; Watson, Catherine J. (2016)

Sustainable grassland intensification aims to increase plant yields while maintaining the ability of soil to act as a sink rather than sources of atmospheric CO<sub>2</sub>. High biomass yields from managed grasslands, however, can be only maintained through long-term nutrient fertilization, which can significantly affect soil carbon (C) storage and cycling. Key questions remain about (1) how long-term inorganic vs. organic fertilization influences soil C stocks, and (2) how soil C gains (or losses) contribute to the long-term C balance of managed grasslands. Using 43 years of data from a permanent grassland experiment, we show that soils not only act as significant C sinks but have not yet reached C saturation. Even unfertilized control soils showed C sequestration rates of 0.35 Mg C ha<sup>−1</sup> yr<sup>−1</sup> (i.e. 35 g C m<sup>−2</sup> yr<sup>−1</sup>; 0–15 cm depth) between 1970 and 2013. High application rates of liquid manure (i.e. cattle slurry) further increased soil C sequestration to 0.86 Mg C ha<sup>−1</sup> yr<sup>−1</sup> (i.e. 86 g C m<sup>−2</sup> yr<sup>−1</sup>) and a key cause of this C accrual was greater C inputs from cattle slurry. However, average coefficients of slurry-C retention in soils suggest that 85 % of C added yearly through liquid manure is lost possibly via CO<sub>2</sub> fluxes and organic C leaching. Inorganically fertilized soils (i.e. NPK) had the lowest C-gain efficiency (i.e. unit of C gained per unit of N added) and lowest C sequestration (similar to control soils). Soils receiving cattle slurry showed higher C-gain and N-retention efficiencies compared to soils receiving NPK or pig slurry. We estimate that net rates of CO<sub>2</sub>-sequestration in the top 15 cm of the soil can offset 9–25 % of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions from intensive management. However, because of multiple GHG sources associated with livestock farming, the net C balance of these grasslands remains positive (9–12 Mg CO<sub>2-equivalent</sub> ha<sup>−1</sup> yr<sup>−1</sup>), thus contributing to climate change. Further C-gain efficiencies (e.g. reduced enteric fermentation and use of feed concentrates, better nutrient management) are required to make grassland intensification more sustainable.
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