Long-term changes in Mollisol organic Carbon and Nitrogen

Conversions of Mollisols from prairie to cropland and subsequent changes in crop production practices in the Midwestern USA have resulted in changes in soil organic matter. Few studies have used archived samples, long-term resampling of soils to a depth of 1 m, and space for time studies to document these changes. We resampled soils by depth (0–100 cm) in fields at 19 locations in central Illinois on poorly drained Mollisols that were in corn (Zea mays L.) and soybean (Glycine max L. Merr.) rotations, were tile drained, and had no known history of manure application in recent decades. Three fields were paired with virgin prairie remnants, two had grass borders that were sampled, and 16 had been previously sampled in 1901 to 1904 or 1957 under various land uses (virgin prairie, cultivation, grass cover). The soils had large amounts of C and N in the profile, with mean values of 179 Mg C ha–1 and 16.1 Mg N ha–1 for the 18 cultivated fields sampled in 2001 and 2002. We confirmed a large reduction in organic C and total N pools from conversion of prairies to annual cultivation and artificial drainage and documented no change in these organic matter pools of cultivated soils during the period of synthetic fertilizer use (1957–2002). Cultivated fields had soil C and N concentrations typically 30 to 50% less than virgin prairie soils. Smaller but significant declines in C and N concentrations were found when comparing 1900s cultivated fields to concentrations in 2002, after another 100 yr of cultivation, and in comparing 1957 grass covered fields that had been converted to annual cultivation before 2002. The reduction in organic matter after cultivation of prairies occurred mostly in the top 50 cm of soil, with evidence of translocation of C and N from these upper layers to the 50- to 100-cm depth, possibly enhanced by tile drainage. For these Mollisols, declines in organic matter were likely completed by the 1950s, with organic matter pools in a steady state under the production practices in place from the late 1950s through 2002.

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