Soil Carbon

New science programme for 2014 onwards is currently in development... 

The Centre's research programme on soil carbon is designed to move beyond quantifying how much soil carbon is stored in agricultural soils into the challenging area of understanding the processes driving soil carbon storage and, crucially, manipulating these processes so that agricultural soil carbon is conserved and, where possible, increased.

Goals & Objectives

Increasing the quantity of carbon stored in agricultural soils has the potential to offset emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. However, realising this potential is technically challenging, especially when soil carbon stocks are already high as they are in New Zealand. The NZAGRC's programme has three distinct components (1) assessing the potential to store carbon across the range of physical and climatic conditions found in New Zealand, (2) devising management practises that can increase the long term soil carbon store and (3) methods for verifying that soil carbon stocks have been changed.


  Objective Leader Timeframe

3.1

Limits of soil carbon storage in New Zealand soils

Dr Mike Beare

Apr 10 - Jun 12

3.2

Quantifying the carbon currently stored in New Zealand soils

Dr Allan Hewitt

Apr 10 - Jun 12

3.3

Process-based modelling of drivers of soil carbon change

Prof Tony Parsons

Apr 10 - Jun 14

3.4

Manipulation of carbon inputs, incorporation and retention to protect and enhance soil carbon

Dr David Whitehead

Apr 10 - Jun 14

3.5

Improved soil carbon measurements

Prof Frank Kelliher

Apr 10 - Jun 14


Principal Investigators

Professor Frank Kelliher, AgResearch
Dr David Whitehead, Landcare Research

Stories 

Manipulating soil carbon Prospects for manipulating
soil carbon

Release Newsletter - February
2012
Soil carbon levels Investigating the scope for
increasing soil carbon levels
in New Zealand
Release Newsletter - November 2011
Biochar

Is biochar a possible solution for
the mitigation of
pastoral GHG
emissions?

Release Newsletter - August 2011

Soil carbon in dairy systems

Can we increase soil carbon
in dairy systems?

Release Newsletter - December 2010


Linkages

AgMardt
AgResearch
Agriculture & AgriFood, Canada
Colorado State University, USA
CSIRO Land & Water, Australia
Landcare Research
Lincoln University
Massey University
New South Wales DPI, Australia
Plant & Food Research
Scion
University of California, Davis, USA
Waikato University

  • Reducing New Zealand's agricultural emissions: Mapping soil organic carbon stocks

    This publication provides an overview of how we can map the amount of carbon stored in New Zealand soils.

    More information 

  • Report: Potential applications of full inversion tillage to increase soil carbon storage during pasture renewal in New Zealand

    This report reviews the potential to use full inversion tillage (FIT) during pasture renewal to increase the soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks of New Zealand’s High Producing Grasslands.
     
    December 2015
     
    Download this report 

  • KuDos to Aaron Wall of Waikato University

    University of Waikato technician, and a pivotal player in the NZAGRC-funded soil carbon programme, Aaron Wall was a winner in last month’s 2015 KuDos Hamilton Science Excellence Awards.

     

    The School of Science Technical Officer picked up the top award in the Hill Laboratories Laboratory Technologist Award section.

     

    Aaron spends much of his time expertly managing the Troughton farm site for the NZAGRC programme.  Additionally, he also manages the access to the site for related research by AgResearch, Plant and Food Research and Landcare Research. His excellent relationship with the farm owners, and unsung heros of the whole operation, Ben and Sarah, enables everything to run smoothly.

     

    On top of overseeing what goes on and when at the Troughton site, Aaron is a key part of the NZAGRC research team.  He has made considerable novel advances in analysis of eddy covariance data, collation of non-CO2 data and pushed the team to collect additional data that are now proving to be crucial. Aaron is able to bring together deeply technical analysis tools with on-farm understanding and his colleagues feel extremely lucky to have him in their team.

     

    Well done Aaron!

     

    See Aaron in action here: https://youtu.be/qFYZ4R1f-RA

     

  • Two PhD studentships in New Zealand: Soil carbon stabilisation and resistance to loss

    There are two PhD studentships available that will contribute to a wider programme of research funded by the Global Partnership for Livestock Emission Research entitled: MANAGEMENT OPTIONS FOR INCREASING SOIL CARBON UNDER GRASSLANDS. The PhD students will be based at the University of Waikato (Hamilton, North Island) and Lincoln University (near Christchurch, South Island) and will work closely together to deliver the project objectives.

    Background

    Intensification of pastoral farming is occurring widely throughout New Zealand (NZ) and the effects on soil processes such as soil carbon storage and stabilisation are poorly known. Some evidence suggests that species-diverse pastures and intensification with irrigation can enhance both pasture production and soil carbon storage. But how stable is this stored carbon and what are the factors that affect its resistance to loss? We have assembled an international team with specialist skills to measure and model the impact of these pasture management practices on soil carbon stabilisation and turnover using advanced stable-isotope techniques. Our findings will be used to develop and validate a process-based model (CenW) that will be used to determine management options for increasing soil carbon stabilisation and its resistance to climate change.

    PhD projects

    Project 1: Belowground partitioning and stabilisation of pasture-fixed carbonThis PhD project will focus on determining how species-diverse pastures and intensification with irrigation practices affect the stabilisation of C in soils. It will deploy stable isotope techniques to quantifying the C fixed by pasture species and its partitioning to aboveground and belowground components under the different management system. It will also apply physical, chemical and biological fractionation techniques to evaluate the stability of the soil organic C fixed by pastures. The appointee for project 1 will be based at Lincoln University and the nearby New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research, Lincoln.

    Project 2: Resistance of incorporated soil carbon to lossThis PhD will examine the resistance of stored C to loss in the face of variation in temperature and moisture and physical disturbance. Physical disturbance occurs in pastures during grazing and pasture renewal, whereas temperature and moisture vary naturally and as a product of irrigation and climate change. These disturbances will be used to test and rank the resistance of stored C from different pasture management practices to loss. This project will also use stable isotopes to separate the response of different pools of carbon in soil. The appointee for project 2 will be based at the University of Waikato, within the WaiBER research group (www.waiber.com).

    Award details

    The appointees will each receive a PhD stipend of $27,000 (NZD) per year and have their enrolment fees paid. Funding will be for three years, with provision for a further 6 months of support if required. For more information and to apply for a position, please visit www.careers.plantandfood.co.nz (vacancy number 13948). Applications should include a cover letter with a brief statement of research interests and experience, CV, transcripts and contact information for two referees. Please indicate in your cover letter whether you have a preference for one of the PhD topics and why.

    For more information contact:

    Prof Louis Schipper schipper@waikato.ac.nz

    Prof Tim Clough timothy.clough@lincoln.ac.nz

    Dr Mike Beare mike.beare@plantandfood.co.nz

    Applications open 7 October 2015 and close 6 November 2015.

  • Soil and pasture research that is sweet enough to eat

    Scientific knowledge is usually communicated through text, diagrams and graphs, but the Waikato Biogeochemistry and Ecohydrology Research group (WaiBER) offers an alternative means of communication - via the medium of cake.

    Once a paper is accepted, group members are encouraged to make a research cake that summarises the paper to enjoy and celebrate with their colleagues.

    The NZAGRC is proud to have played a part in the generation of two recent, clever and edible research cakes (and the papers that inspired them).

    The first of these cakes was prepared by Sam McNally (PhD candidate supported by NZAGRC) on acceptance of his first research paper in the journal Plant and Soil. Sam is supervised by Professor Louis Schipper at the University of Waikato.

    Sam's paper compared root biomass of ryegrass/clover and more diverse pastures (including plantain, chicory, and lucerne) over the seasons of a year. He found greater root biomass in the more diverse pastures, which also had deeper rooting. The hypothesis is then posed that this greater biomass will increase carbon inputs and potentially storage in soil.

    On Sam's cake, the diverse pasture is on the left and you can see greater rooting depth and biomass down the side. Lego man is taking cores on either side of the wooden fence.

    McNally, S.R.; Laughlin, D.C.; Rutledge, S.; Dodd, M.B.; Six, J.; Schipper, L.A, 2015. Root carbon inputs under moderately diverse sward and conventional ryegrass-clover pasture: implications for soil carbon sequestration. Plant and Soil. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11104-015-2463-z

    The second cake was produced by Dr Susanna Rutledge to celebrate the publication of a paper in Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment that looked at the carbon balance of a dairy grazed pasture at Scott Farm over four years. This project receives funding from the NZAGRC.

    Depicted on the colourful cake is the average carbon inputs and outputs in units of jellybeans (jb), where 1 jb = 200 kgC/ha.y. Inputs (left side) include imported feed, effluent and the net of carbon dioxide exchange. Outputs include milk export, silage and methane. The balance (3 jelly beans) is assumed stored in soil.

    S. Rutledge, P.L. Mudge, D.I. Campbell, S.L. Woodward, J.P. Goodrich, A. M. Wall, M.U.F. Kirschbaum, L.A. Schipper, 2015. Carbon balance of an intensively grazed temperate dairy pasture over four years. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 206, 10-20 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2015.03.011 

    Research cakes are a novel way to portray - and celebrate - research done within the WaiBER group.

    Check out the other mouth-watering and thought-provoking cakes at http://waiber.com/research-cake

    If your work under the NZAGRC-PGgRc science programme is celebrated in an interesting way - or if your work has produced some really great results recently - let us know for a future newsletter story

     

     

     


  • Reducing New Zealand's agricultural emissions: Soil Carbon

    This publication provides an overview of what soil carbon is, how we can measure and determine the changes over time and what New Zealand's current soil carbon levels are. this publication was produced in collaboration with the University of Waikato and released at the National Fielddays 2015.

    More information

  • 1525 Frank Kelliher, Principal Scientist (AgResearch) & Professor (Lincoln University)

    Frank's presentation covered the New Zealand work on soil carbon.

    He explained the concept that, like planting trees, increasing soil carbon stocks can “offset” greenhouse gas emissions and that if New Zealand could increase soil carbon stocks by 1 tonne of carbon per hectare over 1 million hectares, this could offset the rise in greenhouse gases since 1990.

    Frank also pointed out that, like trees, soil carbon can take decades to accumulate but this gain can be reversed quickly if land-management practices change again. Additionally it is difficult to measure and often “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone”.

    Research into the New Zealand soil carbon situation has shown that although soil carbon stocks are high in many areas of New Zealand, there is strong evidence that more soil carbon could be stored.

    How can this be achieved?

    The team is running a major field trial at Troughton farm that is looking at farm management practices and determining the effects on soil carbon. Preliminary data suggests that pasture renewal depletes soil carbon, but that the lost soil carbon is ‘restored’ within about a year.

    Pasture diversity also appears to increase soil carbon levels.

    Additionally, modelling indicates that supplementary feeding may increase soil carbon levels as more carbon is being applied to the soil via excreta.

    The effects of irrigation on soil carbon stocks are uncertain currently.

    Download presentation 

  • 1550 Keith Goulding (Rothamsted Research, UK)

    Keith provided an international perspective on nitrous oxide and soil carbon research. With respect to N2O, he highlighted work on investigating the genes related to nitrous oxide emissions and noted that there is one clear message for reducing nitrous oxide, avoid excess nitrogen.

    The IPCC has recently indicated that biochar may have a part to play in reducing agricultural GHGs and a number of research groups are searching for natural nitrification inhibitors.

    Keith indicated that soil carbon needs to be considered carefully. Data were published that could be interpreted to imply that grasslands could continue to sequester carbon indefinitely. However, this has been refuted and there is agreement that for a specific system there is an upper limit for carbon, and he noted the interesting work in New Zealand in this area. t been proven yet, but it appears that the deeper roots also reduce run off significantly and thus could offer multiple benefits.

    Keith concluded with a warning that too much emphasis on soil carbon sequestration could risk taking our eyes off more important climate change threats, such as land clearance and wetland drainage. He also stressed that our priorities should be promotion of good land stewardship and integrated solutions that consider the whole system and do not merely “pollution swap”.

    Download presentation 

  • Assessment of the application of gibberellins to increase productivity and reduce nitrous oxide emissions in grazed grassland

    Emissions of nitrous oxide from grassland systems are attributable largely to the use of nitrogen fertilisers and the excreta deposited by grazing animals.

    There is increasing interest in using gibberellins as a naturally-occurring growth promotant of herbage to reduce the use of nitrogen fertilisers while leading to similar or greater increases in dry matter.

    In a study commissioned by the NZAGRC and carried out by Landcare Research, the conslusion reached is that the use of gibberellins with reduced addition of nitrogen fertiliser has the potential to reduce nitrous emissions from grazed grassland. However, acceptance of widespread use of gibberellins will be dependent on cost benefit analysis for farmers.

    Download the In Press publication

  • Measuring, modelling and managing soil carbon for future farming

    Increasing the quantity and stability of carbon stored in agricultural soils has real potential to offset greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the atmosphere. However, realising this potential is not as straightforward as it might first appear.

    Firstly, soil carbon stocks are notoriously difficult to measure. Agricultural soil carbon stocks vary according to a number of factors including soil type, climate, geographical location and current and previous management practices, there is a lot of spatial variability and changes with time are slow. It just isn't possible to measure the carbon stored in every tiny bit of soil in every hectare of pasture. So measurements of soil carbon are taken at representative point locations, then estimates of soil carbon need to be made for all of the space in between those points. Consider that there are 11 million hectares of grassland in NZ and you can see why understanding of soil carbon crucially relies not only on measurements but also models that help interpolate between measurements and understand changes over time.

    Given the challenges in accurately determining current soil carbon stocks, working out the impacts a certain farm management practice has on soil carbon stocks is also incredibly challenging. The complicated dynamics of soil carbon, that is how long the carbon actually stays in the soil is a specific form, adds another layer of complexity.

    Taking into account these challenges, previous NZAGRC-funded work has used data mining and modelling to quantify current levels of soil carbon and determine the maximum amount that could be stored. In many places NZ grassland soil carbon levels were shown to be relatively high, due to the short time since forested sites were converted to pasture. Whilst this is good news, it means that the potential to increase stocks may be limited and it is very important to ensure that farming practices do not deplete the stocks that we already have over time.

    NZAGRC Principal Investigators Dr David Whitehead (Landcare Research) and Prof Frank Kelliher (AgResearch/Lincoln University) have taken all of this into account whilst planning the NZAGRC soil carbon programme out to 2017. "The focus of the programme to date has been to use experimental measurements and modelling to test the ability of potential management practices to manipulate the rates of input, incorporation and stabilisation of carbon in soils", says David. "We need to continue to develop opportunities that will provide farmers with practices that can minimise soil carbon losses and increase gains".

    The team note that strategies need to be both practical and cost effective to be adopted. With this in mind, a key focus of the updated programme in on two experimental farm sites in the Waikato and Canterbury. "We are really excited to bring our expertise to work on these farms", says David. "The sites are set up to be able to continuously measure a wide range of factors. We can carefully manipulate the system by, for example, planting different pasture species or irrigating or adding nitrogen fertiliser and then see how the change affects the whole farm carbon balance." The large amount of data generated can then be used to estimate conversion of carbon inputs into soil carbon stocks. Additionally, modelling can be used to forecast what the combined effects of different management strategies are likely to be on soil carbon. The end goal is to be able to provide farmers with practical, meaningful advice on how to best manage their farms to maximise soil carbon stocks.

    "We can't forget the measurement problem though", adds Frank. "In order to really understand how soil properties and management practices affect long-term storage of soil carbon, we need the best tools possible, and this means next-generation computer models. Changing practices can have long lasting impacts on soil. With the best will in the world, it's difficult to take experimental measurements on the same site over decades. Even if we could, understanding the sheer volume of data generated in light of all of changes over that time period would be daunting". The goal of Frank and his team's work on developing new tools is to identify the soil properties and grassland management practices that most affect soil carbon stabilisation and vulnerability to loss over the short and long term. The overall aim of the NZAGRC programme is to increase stabilised soil carbon stocks as our farmers head into the future.

Members

Join our news and information mailing list: