Austin, E. E., K. Wickings, M. McDaniel, G. P. Robertson, and A. S. Grandy. 2017. Cover crop root contributions to soil carbon in a no-till corn bioenergy cropping system. GCB Bioenergy doi: 10.1111/gcbb.12428.
Crop residues are potential biofuel feedstocks, but residue removal may reduce soil carbon ©. The inclusion of a cover crop in a corn bioenergy system could provide additional biomass, mitigating the negative effects of residue removal by adding to stable soil C pools. In a no-till continuous corn bioenergy system in the northern US Corn Belt, we used 13CO2 pulse labeling to trace plant C from a winter rye (Secale cereale) cover crop into different soil C pools for 2 years following rye cover crop termination. Corn stover left as residue (30% of total stover) contributed 66, corn roots 57, rye shoots 61, rye roots 50, and rye rhizodeposits 25 g C m−2 to soil. Five months following cover crop termination, belowground cover crop inputs were three times more likely to remain in soil C pools than were aboveground inputs, and much of the root-derived C was in mineral-associated soil fractions. After 2 years, both above- and belowground inputs had declined substantially, indicating that the majority of both root and shoot inputs are eventually mineralized. Our results underscore the importance of cover crop roots vs. shoots and the importance of cover crop rhizodeposition (33% of total belowground cover crop C inputs) as a source of soil C. However, the eventual loss of most cover crop C from these soils indicates that cover crops will likely need to be included every year in rotations to accumulate soil C.
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