Modelling the soil C impacts of cover crops in temperate regions

Helen Hughes*, S. C. McClelland, M. E. Schipanski, Jon Hillier

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Agricultural land management decisions are based on numerous considerations. Belowground carbon (C) storage for both ecosystem health and greenhouse gas (GHG) management is a growing motivation. Observed heterogeneity in soil C storage in croplands may be driven by various environmental, climatic and management factors. Farm system models can indicate which practices will drive C storage, provided the practice is well parameterised and the land manager can provide necessary input data.
We aimed to predict soil C impacts of temperate cover cropping using simple models suitable for broad farmer use and decision support.
The dataset used was initially compiled for a meta-analysis (McClelland et al., 2021) to quantify soil C response to cover crop treatments relative to a non-cover cropped system. It contains 181 data points from 40 existing studies in temperate climates. Environmental, climatic and management indicators were regressed pairwise to predict annual soil C stock change under cover cropping relative to no cover cropping. We also included the IPCC tier 1 methodology and meta-analysis response ratios in our model comparison.
The ease of reliable measurement and monitoring across the modelled indicators was also considered because the best-correlated relationships are squandered if data constraints risk decision-makers being unable to use the model.
Using an extended test dataset to consider priorities for model users, several regression models outperformed the IPCC tier 1 methodology. In particular, two regression models reliably predicted negative changes in soil C, which IPCC and meta-analysis factor approaches could not. A single variable regression model based on cover crop biomass (dry matter) production was the best combination of statistical power, biological relevance and parsimony. In temperate climates, we predicted an increase in soil C stocks as long as cover crop biomass production exceeded 1.3 Mg ha-1 yr-1.
Our final model can be applied with estimated user input data, and avoids the need for baseline soil C as an input; this makes it relatively accessible for farmers. Parsimonious models for soil C change under land management practices can be effective and are an opportunity to increase access to soil C management information for farmers.
Original languageEnglish
Article number103663
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages10
JournalAgricultural systems
Early online date5 May 2023
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2023

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • cover crop
  • linear regression
  • soil organic carbon


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