Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

Scientific Publications

Perennial intermediate wheatgrass accumulates more soil organic carbon than winter wheat – a model assessment

Author: Fiona H. M. Tang, Timothy E. Crews, Nathaniel A. Brunsell & Giulia Vico

Publication: Plant and Soil

Perennial plants are known to add more biomass to soils when compared to annual plants, as evidenced by the rate of carbon accumulation in grassland ecosystems, but less research has been conducted on how this translates to perennial grain crops like those in development at The Land Institute. This paper looks at the rate of carbon accumulation observed with intermediate wheatgrass compared to annual winter wheat, a common grain crop in US farming systems.


Perennial crops have been suggested as a more sustainable alternative to the currently most common cropping systems. Compared with annual plants, perennial plants produce more biomass and have deeper roots, and are expected to lead to higher soil organic carbon (SOC). This hypothesis, however, has not been well-tested for grain crops. Using perennial intermediate wheatgrass (IWG, Thinopyrum intermedium) and annual winter wheat (Triticum aestivum) as focal species, and native grassland as reference, we quantified the SOC accumulation via a process-based model, describing water and heat exchanges and carbon-nitrogen cycling in the canopy and soil to a depth of 2 m. The model includes C fixation via photosynthesis, plant biomass growth and litter production, physical protection of SOC, depolymerisation, C mineralisation, nitrification, denitrification, microbial growth, and necromass turnover in the soil. While of general applicability, we considered a sandy loam under warm-summer humid continental climate. Following a conversion from native grassland, IWG reduced SOC losses by at least 38%, especially in the particulate organic carbon (POC) pool, within the top 2 m of soil, compared with annual wheat. Soil microbial biomass and soil respiration were higher in IWG than annual wheat. Shifting from annual wheat to high photosynthetic capacity IWG increased SOC by about 33 g C m−2 y−1 (averaged over a 4-year continuous IWG cropping), with a large fraction of SOC gain stemming from restoring POC. Compared with annual grains, perennial grains can increase soil carbon sequestration and maintain SOC at levels nearer to that of native grasslands.



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