Maximizing soil organic carbon stocks under cover cropping: insights from long-term agricultural experiments in North America
Cover crops are widely advocated for increasing soil organic carbon (SOC) levels, thereby benefiting soil health improvement and climate change mitigation. Few regional-scale studies have robustly explored SOC stocks under cover cropping, due to limited long-term experiments. We used the unique experimental data from the North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements conducted in 2019 to address this issue. This study included 19 agricultural research sites with 36 pairs of cover cropping established between 1896 and 2014. Explanatory variables related to site-specific environmental conditions and management practices were collected to identify and prioritize contributing factors that affect SOC stocks with cover crops, by coupling the Boruta algorithm and structural equation modeling. Overall, cover crops significantly (P < 0.05) improved several indicators of soil health, including greater SOC (concentration: +8%; stock: +7%), total nitrogen (+8%), water-stable aggregates (+15%), and potential carbon mineralization (+34%), on average, compared to no cover crop control. Likewise, on average, cover crops sequestered SOC 3.55 Mg C ha-1 (0–15 cm depth), with a sequestration rate of 0.24 Mg C ha-1 yr-1. In addition, we found climate (Hargreaves climatic moisture deficit) was important in explaining the variation of SOC stocks with cover crops, followed by soil properties (e.g., soil clay content). In terms of management practices, cover crop type had a significant positive (0.36) effect on SOC stocks, with non-legumes showing a greater impact, compared to legumes and mixtures. Crop rotational diversity also had a positive (0.28) effect on SOC accumulation. Our findings suggested that integrating non-legume cover crops into diverse crop rotation is likely to be a promising strategy to maximize SOC stocks with cover crops across North America.