On the role of soil organic matter for crop production in European arable farming

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU

Abstract

The aim of this thesis was to improve understanding of the role of organic inputs and soil organic matter (SOM) for crop production in contemporary arable farming in Europe. For this purpose, long-term experiments were analysed on the additional yield effect of organic inputs and savings in mineral fertiliser. In addition, a farm survey was conducted to find drivers and barriers for the use of organic inputs and to assess if arable farmers in Europe perceive a deficiency of SOM.

The findings in this thesis suggest that at least on the shorter term, on average, there seems to be no immediate threat from a deficiency of SOM to crop production in arable farming in Europe. The long-term experiments showed that with sufficient use of only mineral fertilisers, on average, similar yields could be attained over multiple years as with the combined use of organic inputs and mineral fertiliser. This was reflected in the farm survey, in which a large majority of farmers indicated not to perceive a deficiency of SOM. Analysis of long-term experiments also showed that more mineral fertiliser N was saved when using farmyard manure at high N rates (with mineral fertiliser application) than at low N rates (without mineral fertiliser application), based on comparisons at equal yield.

Specific crops and environments did benefit from organic inputs and more SOM in terms of crop production. Long-term experiments showed that organic inputs give benefit to crop production in wet climates and on sandy soils. In addition, farmers perceived a higher deficiency of SOM on steep slopes, sandy soils, wet and very dry climates. The additional yield effect of organic inputs was significant for potatoes. More in general, farmers who cultivated larger shares of their land with specialized crops (including potatoes, sugar beets, onions and other vegetables) than cereals perceived a higher deficiency of SOM. It seems that while the functions of SOM can be replaced with technical means to a large extent (e.g. tillage, use of mineral fertilisers), there are limits to this technical potential when environmental conditions are more extreme and crops are more demanding.

The farm survey revealed that farmers perceive a trade-off between improved soil quality on the one hand and increased pressures from weeds, pests and diseases and financial consequences on the other hand when using organic inputs. If policies aim to stimulate the maintenance or increase of SOM, more insight is needed into the conditions that regulate the pressures of weeds, pests and diseases in response to organic inputs. Financial consequences (at least on the short term) should also be accounted for. More importantly however, benefits from SOM for crop production cannot be taken for granted. Only in specific situations such benefits will exist. If European policies on SOM aim to include benefits for crop production, focus should be on areas with more extreme environmental conditions (very dry or wet climates, steep slopes, sandy soils), or cropping systems with more specialized or horticultural crops rather than cereals.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
Supervisors/Advisors
  • van Ittersum, Martin, Promotor
  • ten Berge, Hein, Co-promotor
Award date4 Oct 2017
Place of PublicationWageningen
Publisher
Print ISBNs9789463436632
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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Keywords

  • soil fertility
  • soil fertility management
  • soil management
  • soil conservation
  • organic matter
  • soil organic matter
  • nitrogen
  • nitrogen fertilizers
  • green manures
  • manures
  • straw
  • soil carbon sequestration
  • cover crops
  • crop yield
  • yields
  • meta-analysis
  • food security
  • europe
  • drivers
  • barriers

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