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Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

Managing grazing lands to improve soils and promote climate change adaptation and mitigation: a global synthesis

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DeLonge, M. and Basche, A., 2017. Managing grazing lands to improve soils and promote climate change adaptation and mitigation: a global synthesis. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, pp.1-12.

Abstract

The potential to improve soils to help farmers and ranchers adapt to and mitigate climate change has generated significant enthusiasm. Within this discussion, grasslands have surfaced as being particularly important, due to their geographic range, their capacity to store substantial quantities of carbon relative to cultivated croplands and their potential role in mitigating droughts and floods. However, leveraging grasslands for climate change mitigation and adaptation will require a better understanding of how farmers and ranchers who rely on them for their livelihoods can improve management and related outcomes.

To investigate opportunities for such improvements, we conducted a meta-analysis of field experiments that investigated how soil water infiltration rates are affected by a range of management options: adding complexity to grazing patterns, reducing stocking rates or extended rest from grazing. Further, to explore the relationships between observed changes in soil water infiltration and soil carbon, we identified papers that reported data on both metrics. We found that in 81.9% of all cases, responses of infiltration rates to identified management treatments (response ratios) were above zero, with infiltration rates increasing by 59.3 ± 7.3%. Mean response ratios from unique management categories were not significantly different, although the effect of extended rest (67.9 ± 8.5%, n = 140 from 31 experiments) was slightly higher than from reducing stocking rates (42.0 ± 10.8%; n = 63 from 17 experiments) or adding complexity (34.0 ± 14.1%, n =17 from 11 experiments). We did not find a significant effect of several other variables, including treatment duration, mean annual precipitation or soil texture; however, analysis of aridity indices suggested that grazing management may have a slightly larger effect in more humid environments. Within our database, we found that 42% of complexity studies, 41% of stocking rate studies and 29% of extended rest studies also reported at least some measure of soil carbon. Within the subset of cases where both infiltration rates and carbon were reported, response ratios were largely positive for both variables (at least 64% of cases had positive mean response ratios in all management categories).

Overall, our findings reveal that a variety of management strategies have the potential to improve soil water infiltration rates, with possible benefits for soil carbon as well. However, we identified a shortage of well-replicated and detailed experiments in all grazing management categories, and call for additional research of both soil water and soil carbon properties for these critical agroecosystems.

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