Assessing soil carbon and soil quality for sustainable agricultural systems in tropical hillslope soils using spectroscopic methods
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Soil quality is a concept that integrates physical, chemical, and biological components and processes of soil across landscapes. Identifying and developing appropriate methods to quantify and assess changes in soil quality are necessary for evaluating soil degradation and improving management practices. Many parameters that are associated with soil quality depend on soil organic matter (SOM) levels and composition. The objectives of this research were to: 1) conduct a literature review of soil quality assessment techniques to evaluate soil quality across a wide-range of environments and agricultural practices; 2) determine if some standard soil sampling and analytical protocols could be identified or developed to enhance soil quality comparisons across a wide range of environments around the world; and 3) assess the efficacy of spectroscopic-based (i.e. near-infrared, mid-infrared, and visible range) analytical methods to evaluate soil organic matter fractions and soil quality. To assess soil quality for sustainable agricultural systems in hillslope soils using spectroscopic methods, surface soil samples (0-20 cm) were collected from hillslope agricultural sites in Bolivia, the Philippines and Indonesia which had differences in length of fallow, levels of soil degradation, and cultivation by landscape position. To determine the efficacy of spectroscopic-based on visible range, the use of the potassium permanganate test (MnOxC) for active organic carbon was studied. The MnOxC test was generally responsive to a range of fallow lengths among different agricultural fields and communities in Umala Municipality in Bolivia. A major objective of fallowing agricultural fields in this region is to restore soil fertility in the field after cropping. This general increase in MnOxC with increased length fallowing may be due to inputs of residue and roots from regrowth of native vegetation after cropping in fallowed areas and possible manure inputs from sheep that generally graze these fallow areas. In addition, higher concentrations of MnOxC were generally observed in non-degraded soil compared to that of degraded soil in all sampled communities in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Comparisons of soil quality among agroforestry and nonagroforestry sites were studied near Bogor, Indonesia. Both agroforestry and nonagroforestry sites had been managed with different types and rates (low, medium, and high) of amendments including manure, compost and chemical fertilizer. Soil MnOxC was generally higher with increasing amounts of added animal manure and in agroforestry areas compared to that of non-agroforestry areas. A set of soil samples was collected along a hill-slope transect from the top to the bottom of agricultural valley on Mindanao Island in the Philippines. The transect across the landscape was divided into summit, shoulder, backslope, footslope and toeslope landscape positions. Soil MnOxC from cultivated fields areas at each landscape position were generally lower than noncultivated areas at similar landscape positions. Among the non-cultivated sites, soil MnOxC was the highest at the summit position and the lowest at the backslope positions while soil MnOxC among cultivated sites were relatively similar across the hill-slope transect. This comparison of the use of the soil MnOxC test to determine changes in active C among a wide range of environmental conditions, cropping systems and soil management practices among agroecosystems with hillslopes in tropical countries around the world indicates that the soil MnOxC test is a sensitive indicator to assess changes in active C with changes in crop and soil management. Several advantages to using this procedure include its ease of use that requires a minimal of training for the field method, its low relative cost and growing research results that facilitate interpretation of the test results. Therefore, this method has potential for supporting management decisions, and sustainable management of agricultural systems in tropical hillslope ecosystems. The ability of visible/near-infrared (VNIR) spectroscopy to estimate soil organic carbon and carbon fractions from diverse soils in tropical hillslope agroecosystems around the world that were under different soil management and cropping systems was evaluated in this research. It was shown that VNIR spectroscopy could be an effective technique to estimate SOC and soil organic carbon fractions for a wide range of soils from tropical hillslope agroecosystems around the world. Several potential advantages of use of VNIR compared to conventional soil testing methods in developing countries are that it may allow for simultaneous evaluation of several soil properties and it can be done rapidly and possibly in the field. Diffuse Reflectance Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (DRIFT) is considered to be one of the most sensitive infrared techniques for analyzing the structural composition of soil organic matter. The benefit of the DRIFT technique is the ability to characterize the functional group composition of heterogeneous materials with minimal sample preparation. Results showed that this method can be used to characterize the functional groups of heterogeneous soil organic materials and it may be a more direct method to determine changes in soil organic matter and soil quality caused by soil management practices than several other chemical and spectral techniques. The high resolution of the spectra and quantitative estimations of functional groups can be used to analyze soil organic carbon composition. Therefore, in future work this technique has great potential to be an accurate and simple method for helping to understand the changes in the composition of soil organic carbon due to soil organic management practices and to estimate changes in soil quality resulting from those practices in these hillslope agroecosystems.
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