Plant and Soil

, Volume 353, Issue 1–2, pp 321–332 | Cite as

Soil organic carbon dynamics in a dryland cereal cropping system of the Loess Plateau under long-term nitrogen fertilizer applications

  • Shengli Guo
  • Jinshui Wu
  • Kevin Coleman
  • Hanhua Zhu
  • Yong Li
  • Wenzhao Liu
Regular Article



Concerns over food security and global climate change require an improved understanding of how to achieve optimal crop yields whilst minimizing net greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. In the semi-arid Loess Plateau region of China, as elsewhere, fertilizer nitrogen (N) inputs are necessary to increase yields and improve local food security.


In a dryland annual cropping system, we evaluated the effects of N fertilizers on crop yield, its long-term impact on soil organic carbon (SOC) concentrations and stock sizes, and the distribution of carbon (C) within various aggregate-size fractions. A current version (RothC) of the Rothamsted model for the turnover of organic C in soil was used to simulate changes in SOC. Five N application rates [0 (N0), 45 (N45), 90 (N90), 135 (N135), and 180 (N180) kg N ha−1] were applied to plots for 25 years (1984–2009) on a loam soil (Cumulic Haplustoll) at the Changwu State Key Agro-Ecological Experimental Station, Shaanxi, China.


Crop yield varied with year, but increased over time in the fertilized plots. Average annual grain yields were 1.15, 2.46, 3.11, 3.49, and 3.55 Mg ha−1 with the increasing N application rates, respectively. Long-term N fertilizer application increased significantly (P = 0.041) SOC concentrations and stocks in the 0–20 cm horizon. Each kilogram of fertilizer N applied increased SOC by 0.51 kg in the top soil from 1984 to 2009. Using RothC, the calculated annual inputs of plant C (in roots, stubble, root exudates, etc.) to the soil were 0.61, 0.74, 0.78, 0.86, and 0.97 Mg C ha−1 year−1 in N0, N45, N90, N135 and N180 treatments, respectively. The modeled turnover time of SOC (excluding inert organic C) in the continuous wheat cropping system was 26 years. The SOC accumulation rate was calculated to be 40.0, 48.0, 68.0, and 100.0 kg C ha−1 year−1 for the N45, N90, N135 and N180 treatments over 25 years, respectively. As aboveground biomass was removed, the increases in SOC stocks with higher N application are attributed to increased inputs of root biomass and root exudates. Increasing N application rates significantly improved C concentrations in the macroaggregate fractions (>1 mm).


Applying N fertilizer is a sustainable practice, especially in carbon sequestration and crop productivity, for the semiarid Loess Plateau region.


Soil organic carbon Turnover time C input Soil aggregation Long-term N fertilization RothC 



This work was supported by the State Key Laboratory of Soil Erosion and Dryland Farming on the Loess Plateau (No.10502-Z11), the "Strategic Priority Research Program—Climate Change: Carbon Budget and Related Issues" of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (No. XDA05050504) and Rothamsted International Fellowship Award. Rothamsted research is an institute of the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. We thank the two anonymous reviewers for their valuable suggestions to improve the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Shengli Guo
    • 1
    • 2
  • Jinshui Wu
    • 3
  • Kevin Coleman
    • 4
  • Hanhua Zhu
    • 2
  • Yong Li
    • 3
  • Wenzhao Liu
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Institute of Soil and Water ConservationNorthwest University of Agriculture and ForestryYanglingChina
  2. 2.State Key Laboratory of Soil Erosion and Dryland Farming on the Loess PlateauInstitute of Soil and Water Conservation, Chinese Academy of SciencesYanglingChina
  3. 3.Key Laboratory for Agro-ecological Processes in Subtropical RegionsInstitute of Subtropical Agriculture, CASChangshaChina
  4. 4.Sustainable Soils and Grassland SystemsRothamsted ResearchHarpendenUK

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