Tillage and soil carbon sequestration-What do we really know?

John M. Baker, Tyson E. Ochsner, Rodney T. Venterea, Timothy J. Griffis

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review

804 Scopus citations


It is widely believed that soil disturbance by tillage was a primary cause of the historical loss of soil organic carbon (SOC) in North America, and that substantial SOC sequestration can be accomplished by changing from conventional plowing to less intensive methods known as conservation tillage. This is based on experiments where changes in carbon storage have been estimated through soil sampling of tillage trials. However, sampling protocol may have biased the results. In essentially all cases where conservation tillage was found to sequester C, soils were only sampled to a depth of 30 cm or less, even though crop roots often extend much deeper. In the few studies where sampling extended deeper than 30 cm, conservation tillage has shown no consistent accrual of SOC, instead showing a difference in the distribution of SOC, with higher concentrations near the surface in conservation tillage and higher concentrations in deeper layers under conventional tillage. These contrasting results may be due to tillage-induced differences in thermal and physical conditions that affect root growth and distribution. Long-term, continuous gas exchange measurements have also been unable to detect C gain due to reduced tillage. Though there are other good reasons to use conservation tillage, evidence that it promotes C sequestration is not compelling.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-5
Number of pages5
JournalAgriculture, Ecosystems and Environment
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Jan 2007


  • Carbon sequestration
  • Organic matter
  • Sampling depth
  • Tillage

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