The soil of cropland is being looked at more and more as a place to sequester atmospheric carbon (CO2) to offset greenhouse gas emissions from the expanding use of fossil fuels in things such as cars, trucks or power plants. Farmers, scientists and policymakers across the globe are particularly interested in the potential contribution of agricultural practices, like cover crops, to sequester carbon in the soil.1 In order to fully capitalize on this carbon sequestration opportunity, the following cultural and conservation practices have proven to be very beneficial.
Cover crops are becoming an important component in the soil carbon sequestration strategy (Figure 1). The root and shoot structures of cover crops help to feed bacteria, fungi, earthworms and other soil organisms, which over time will help to increase soil carbon levels. Extending the season of growing plant material through cover crops allows for the fixation of atmospheric carbon through photosynthesis. Other added benefits of cover crops include erosion prevention, improved soil structure and organic matter, weed suppression, improved water holding capacity and availability, and breaking up compacted soil layers, allowing for better root development in subsequent crops. This healthier soil structure allows for deeper root growth and additional carbon sequestration. Cover crops are the most known practice to help sequester carbon.
By leaving the previous crop residue on the soil surface through no-till and strip-till practices, residue slowly breaks down while the carbon-containing root and plant structures remain in the soil (Figure 2). Also, by not exposing the soil carbon to air, CO2 is not produced or omitted. Additionally, these practices protect the soil from erosion via wind and rain while also protecting the soil from nutrient and moisture loss. No-till, especially in soybean production, is a simple and effective way to practice carbon sequestration.
Vertical Tillage/Minimum Tillage
The goal of vertical tillage as it pertains to carbon sequestration is to keep the plant root structures in the soil. Vertical tillage has become a popular way to help speed up the breakdown of the above-ground plant structures with very minimal disruption to the soil itself. Vertical tillage is viewed as a less effective way of sequestering carbon than cover crops or no-till, but none the less a step in the right direction as it pertains to sustainable farming practices and the building of soil health.
Using conservation practices to sequester carbon is a fast-growing practice. Many farmers view it as a way to rebuild soil carbon to levels that occurred prior to agricultural cultivation. Others are using conservation practices to build soil health for future generations. With conversations around global warming on the rise, many corporations, Bayer included, are looking to lessen their carbon footprint by paying farm operations for carbon credits. It is an exciting new frontier, and while there is much more to be learned, these practices are a great place to start in the process of sequestering carbon and building soil health.
1Lal, R. 2015. Cover cropping and the “4 per Thousand” proposal. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. Soil and Water Conservation Society.
Performance may vary, from location to location and from year to year, as local growing, soil and weather conditions may vary. Growers should evaluate data from multiple locations and years whenever possible and should consider the impacts of these conditions on the grower’s fields.
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