Considering Historical Land Use When Estimating Soil Carbon Stock Changes of Transitional Croplands

By Kenneth Copenhaver and Steffen Mueller

Abstract: Understanding changes to soil organic carbon storage (SOC) requires knowledge of detailed land use history. Many satellite-based analyses of land use change have been conducted over short periods (typically 5 to 10 years) to investigate causality to a demand increase in an agricultural commodity. However, statistically significant changes in SOC are not readily observable during this time and typically require decades for meaningful differences to accrue. This study aimed to determine land use and soil organic carbon stocks on land parcels over 36 years (1985–2021) located in areas where historical land use transitions between cropland and non-cropland are prevalent. Aerial and satellite imagery were analyzed across 25,992 hectares in ten counties across the Corn Belt. Grower interviews were conducted to solicit feedback on the drivers of land use change. Finally, SOC analyses associated with land use changes were determined using two process-based models. Analysis showed that 371 of the parcels had remained in cropland, 611 parcels transitioned into non-cropland, and 18 parcels were identified as non-cropland. The grower surveys indicated that the most common reasons for returning land to crop was the difficulty getting land re-enrolled in the CRP and reduced cattle prices. Both the SALUS and GREET-CCLUB models were parameterized to assess soil carbon changes for the respective land use history, and both models returned consistent SOC increases at the county level over time.