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

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Necpálová, Magdalena
Anex, Robert
Kravchenko, Alexandra
Abendroth, Lori
Del Grosso, Stephen
Dick, Warren
Herzmann, Daryl
Lauer, Joseph
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Sawyer, John
Emeritus Professor
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The Department of Agronomy seeks to teach the study of the farm-field, its crops, and its science and management. It originally consisted of three sub-departments to do this: Soils, Farm-Crops, and Agricultural Engineering (which became its own department in 1907). Today, the department teaches crop sciences and breeding, soil sciences, meteorology, agroecology, and biotechnology.

The Department of Agronomy was formed in 1902. From 1917 to 1935 it was known as the Department of Farm Crops and Soils.

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  • Department of Farm Crops and Soils (1917–1935)

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Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering

Since 1905, the Department of Agricultural Engineering, now the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering (ABE), has been a leader in providing engineering solutions to agricultural problems in the United States and the world. The department’s original mission was to mechanize agriculture. That mission has evolved to encompass a global view of the entire food production system–the wise management of natural resources in the production, processing, storage, handling, and use of food fiber and other biological products.

In 1905 Agricultural Engineering was recognized as a subdivision of the Department of Agronomy, and in 1907 it was recognized as a unique department. It was renamed the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering in 1990. The department merged with the Department of Industrial Education and Technology in 2004.

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  • Department of Agricultural Engineering (1907–1990)

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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.