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Should we manage soil organic carbon in Vertosols in the northern grains region of Australia?

R. J. Farquharson, G. D. Schwenke and J. D. Mullen

Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 43(3) 261 - 270
Published: 08 April 2003


Two issues prompted this paper. The first was the measured soil organic carbon decline in fertile northern Australian soils under continual cropping using traditional management practices. We wanted to see whether it was theoretically possible to maintain or improve soil organic carbon concentrations with modern management recommendations. The second was the debate about use of sustainability indicators for on-farm management, so we looked at soil organic carbon as a potential indicator of soil health and investigated whether it was useful in making on-farm crop decisions.

The analytical results indicated first that theoretically the observed decline in soil organic carbon concentrations in some northern cracking clay soils can be halted and reversed under continuous cropping sequences by using best practice management. Second, the results and associated discussion give some support to the use of soil organic carbon as a sustainability indicator for soil health. There was a consistent correlation between crop input decisions (fertilisation, stubble management, tillage), outputs (yield and profits) and outcomes (change in soil organic carbon content) in the short and longer term. And this relationship depended to some extent on whether the existing soil organic carbon status was low, medium or high.

A stock dynamics relationship is one where the change in a stock (such as soil organic carbon) through time is related not only to the management decisions made and other random influences (such as climatic effects), but also to the concentration or level of the stock itself in a previous time period. Against such a requirement, soil organic carbon was found to be a reasonable measure. However, the inaccuracy in measuring soil organic carbon in the paddock mitigates the potential benefit shown in this analysis of using soil organic carbon as a sustainability indicator.

These results are based on a simulation model (APSIM) calibrated for a cracking clay (Vertosol) soil typical of much of the intensively-cropped slopes and plains region of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, and need to be interpreted in this light. There are large areas of such soils in north-western New South Wales; however, many of these experience lower rainfalls and plant-available soil water capacities than in this case, and the importance of these characteristics must also be considered.

Keywords: soil fertility, soil organic carbon, sustainability indicators, APSIM, stock dynamics.

© CSIRO 2003

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