Soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks of croplands can be enhanced by targeted management, which boosts soil fertility and contributes to climate change mitigation. One SOC sequestration option is adopting cover crops. The aim of this study was to quantify the SOC sequestration potential of cover crops in Germany.
We simulated SOC scenarios on 1,267 cropland sites with site-specific management data using an SOC model ensemble consisting of RothC and C-TOOL. A new method was developed to estimate carbon input from cover crops that included the effects of climate, sowing date and species on cover crop biomass production.
The recent cover crop area could be tripled to 30% of arable land in Germany. This would enhance total carbon input by 12% and increase SOC stocks by 35 Tg within 50 years, corresponding to an annual increase of 0.06 Mg C ha-1, 2.5 Tg CO2 or 0.8 per mill of current SOC stocks in 0–30 cm depth. On sites with cover crops, 0.28–0.33 Mg C ha-1 a-1 would be accumulated within 50 years. Our simulations predicted that even if the full potential for cover crop growth were realised, there would still be a decline in SOC stocks in German croplands within 50 years due to the underlining negative SOC trend.
Cover crops alone cannot turn croplands from carbon sources to sinks. However, growing them reduces bare fallow periods and SOC losses and thus is an effective climate change mitigation strategy in agriculture.