What does it take to detect a change in soil carbon stock? A regional comparison of minimum detectable difference and experiment duration in the north central United States

Helmers, Matthew
Necpálová, Magdalena
Anex, Robert
Kravchenko, Alexandra
Abendroth, Lori
Sawyer, John
Del Grosso, Stephen
Dick, Warren
Helmers, Matthew
Herzmann, Daryl
Lauer, Joseph
Nafziger, Emerson
Sawyer, John
Scharf, Peter
Strock, Jeffrey
Villamil, Maria
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AgronomyAgricultural and Biosystems Engineering

Variability in soil organic carbon (SOC) results from natural and human processes interacting across time and space, and leads to large variation in the minimum difference in SOC that can be detected with a particular experimental design. Here we report a unique comparison of minimum detectable differences (MDDs) in SOC, and the estimated times required to observe those MDDs across the north central United States, calculated for the two most common SOC experiments: (1) a comparison between two treatments, e.g., moldboard plow (MP) and no-tillage (NT), using a randomized complete block design experiment; and (2) a comparison of changes in SOC over time for a particular treatment, e.g., NT, using a randomized complete block design experiment with time as an additional factor. We estimated the duration of the two experiment types required to achieve MDD through simulation of SOC dynamics. Data for the study came from 13 experimental sites located in Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Minnesota. Soil organic carbon, bulk density, and texture were measured at four soil depths. Minimum detectable differences were calculated with probability of Type I error of 0.05 and probability of Type II error of 0.15.

The MDDs in SOC were highly variable across the region and increased with soil depth. At 0 to 10 cm (0 to 3.9 in) soil depth, MDDs with five replications ranged from 1.04 g C kg−1 (0.017 oz C lb−1; 6%) to 7.15 g C kg−1 (0.114 oz C lb−1; 31%) for comparison of two treatments; and from 0.46 g C kg−1 (0.007 oz C lb−1; 3%) to 3.12 g C kg−1 (0.050 oz C lb−1; 13%) for SOC change over time. Large differences were also predicted in the experiment duration required to detect a difference in SOC between MP and NT (from 8 to >100 years with five replications), or a change in SOC over time under NT management (from 11 to 71 years with five replications). At most locations, the time required to detect a change in SOC under NT was shorter than the time required to detect a difference between MP and NT. Minimum detectable difference and experiment duration decreased with the number of replications and were correlated with SOC variability and soil texture of the experimental sites, i.e., they tended to be lower in fine textured soils. Experiment duration was also reduced by increased crop productivity and the amount of residue left on the soil. The relationships and methods described here enable the design of experiments with high power of detecting differences and changes in SOC and enhance our understanding of how management practices influence SOC storage.


This article is from Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 69 (2014): 517–531, doi:10.2489/jswc.69.6.517.