Grazing and climate effects on soil organic carbon concentration and particle-size association in northern grasslands

Received: September 18, 2017
Accepted: January 8, 2018
Published: January 22, 2018

Daniel B. Hewins1, Mark P. Lyseng2,3, Donald F. Schoderbek2, Mike Alexander3, Walter D. Willms4, Cameron N. Carlyle2, Scott X. Chang5 & Edward W. Bork2

Grasslands cover more than 40% of the terrestrial surface of Earth and provide a range of ecological goods and services, including serving as one of the largest reservoirs for terrestrial carbon. An understanding of how livestock grazing, influences grassland soil organic carbon (SOC), including its concentration, vertical distribution and association among soil-particle sizes is unclear. We quantified SOC concentrations in the upper 30 cm of mineral soil, together with SOC particle-size association, within 108 pairs of long-term grazed and non-grazed grassland study sites spanning six distinct climate subregions across a 5.7 M ha area of Alberta, Canada. Moderate grazing enhanced SOC concentration by 12% in the upper 15 cm of soil. Moreover, SOC concentrations in mineral layers were associated with regional climate, such that SOC increased from dry to mesic subregions. Our results also indicate that C concentrations in each of 2000–250, 250–53, < 53 μm soil particle-size fractions were consistent with total SOC concentrations, increasing from semi-arid to more mesic subregions. We conclude that long-term livestock grazing may enhance SOC concentrations in shallow mineral soil and affirm that climate rather than grazing is the key modulator of soil C storage across northern grasslands.