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ARS Home » Midwest Area » Ames, Iowa » National Laboratory for Agriculture and The Environment » Soil, Water & Air Resources Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #272128

Title: Soil properties following reforestation or afforestation of marginal cropland

item Sauer, Thomas - Tom
item James, David
item Cambardella, Cynthia
item HERNANDEZ-RAMIREZ, GUILLERMO - Plant And Food Research

Submitted to: Plant and Soil
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 4/11/2012
Publication Date: 5/4/2012
Citation: Sauer, T.J., James, D.E., Cambardella, C.A., Hernandez-Ramirez, G. 2012. Soil properties following reforestation or afforestation of marginal cropland. Plant and Soil. Available:

Interpretive Summary: Some land under cultivation is not productive for growing crops. This land may have been degraded by erosion or is not suited for the crops now grown in the area. Conversion of such land to forest may be a practice that improves the soil quality, grows feedstock for bioenergy, stores more carbon, and doesn't significantly decrease the amount of food produced. A study was completed to locate land marginal for crop production in the state of Iowa. Soils were sampled from four locations to measure the effect of tree planting on soil properties. The results indicate that planting trees increased the amount of carbon in the soil and improved other soil properties. Most of the marginal land is still being cultivated so this reseach is of interest to producers, agency personnel, or policy makers interested in the potential economic and environmental benefits that may come with such land use conversion.

Technical Abstract: Reforestation or afforestation of marginal agricultural lands offers opportunities to sequester soil organic carbon (SOC) and improve the quality of degraded soils. The objectives of this study were to identify the extent and distribution of marginally productive cropland that was originally under forest cover in the state of Iowa and to quantify the changes in SOC and relevant soil properties following tree planting. A GIS analysis was used to identify marginal cropland based on a productivity index and vulnerability to erosion. Based on these criteria, 1.05 million ha (7.2%) of the state’s land area was identified as marginal for crop production. Four locations were identified to provide a representative sample of marginal lands from which soil samples were collected from recent (< 35 yr-old) forest plantations and adjacent crop fields. Soil samples were analyzed for SOC, total nitrogen (TN), pH, cation exchange capacity (CEC), Mehlich 3 extractable nutrients, and particle size. At all locations, significantly greater concentrations of SOC were observed in 0-30 cm depth of the forested soils when compared to tilled crop fields. The forested soils had 30.0+/-5.1% (mean+/-standard error) more SOC than the tilled cropland. The overall average annual change in SOC following tree planting was 0.20+/-0.01 Mg C m-2 yr-1 with no significant difference between coniferous or deciduous species. Changes were observed in soil bulk density, pH, CEC, and nutrient content but strong correlations with SOC content were only observed for bulk density and Mehlich 3 Ca. Further study should be engaged to quantity the effects on hydrology and soil biology associated with the increase in SOC.