Possibilities of carbon and nitrogen sequestration under conventional tillage and no-till cover crop farming (Mekong valley, Laos)


There is limited information, particularly in the tropics, of farming systems that loose or accumulate carbon in their soils. We compared no-till with a mulch-providing cover crop with conventional tillage without cover crop. Side effects were also investigated, weeds, surface crusting, soil macrofauna, infiltration, porosity and roots. The study site was a flat sandy clay loam. Treatments were maintained over five years; within this period, the time between the first and last soil sampling was exactly four years. Both times the same profile locations and exactly the same depths were sampled thereby greatly reducing inherent soil variability. Soil was sampled at five increments from 0 to 40 cm depth. The biomass contributions of maize, cover crop and weeds were measured. The main findings were: (1) The cover crop that was alleged to Supply extra inputs to the no-till system failed to do so because the weeds in the tillage treatment became as efficient in accumulating biomass as the planted cover crop. (2) With equal organic inputs over four years (43.0 Mg dry weight ha(-1) incorporated into the soil under conventional tillage, and 44.2 Mg dry weight ha(-1) remaining on the soil surface as mulch under no-till), the tillage system stored (0-40 cm) significantly soil carbon (+590 g C m(-2)), whereas the no-till lost carbon (-133 g C m(-2)). The difference between the systems was significant. Carbon accumulated just below the plough layer. Nitrogen stocks remained unchanged. A very significant lowering of the C:N ratio occurred under no-till. The process of transforming the available biomass on the soil surface into organic matter is apparently too slow to avoid direct losses under no-till. Alternatively, ploughing plant residues into the soil enables to capture some of what would otherwise be lost as CO2 through decay, thereby increasing soil carbon. (3) In the last three years of the experiment, maize grain yields and crop residues stabilized at a lower level but were significantly higher under no-till, 16% and 34%, respectively. Higher yields were attributed to more soil water tinder no-till due to improved soil structure, though bulk density was not affected. The mulch layer protecting the soil surface favoured infiltration by keeping it crust-free. Water availability was further promoted by a better connectivity of pores and more macrofauna. However, the no-till system depended heavily on fertilizers and herbicides. The lack of effectiveness of herbicides against shifting weed communities threatens the continuation of the system

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Last time updated on June 14, 2016

This paper was published in Horizon / Pleins textes.

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