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Journal of Integrative Agriculture 2016, 15(0): 60345-7

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Tillage, crop residue, and nutrient management effects on soil

organic carbon sequestration in rice-based cropping systems:
A review
Rajan Ghimire1, Sushil Lamichhane2, Bharat Sharma Acharya3, Prakriti Bista4, Upendra M. Sainju5

New Mexico State University, Agricultural Science Center, Clovis, NM 88101, USA.
Nepal Agricultural Research Council, Soil Science Division, Khumaltar, Nepal
Oklahoma State University, Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, Stillwater, OK 74078, USA
Oregon State University, Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center, Pendleton, OR 97801, USA

USDA-ARS, Northern Plains Agricultural Research Lab, Sidney, MT 59270, USA

Soil organic carbon (SOC) sequestration is one of the major agricultural strategies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions,
enhance food security, and improve agricultural sustainability. This paper synthesizes the much-needed state-of-knowledge
on the effects of tillage, crop residue, and nutrient management practices on SOC sequestration and identifies potential
research gap, opportunities, and challenges in studying SOC dynamics in rice (Oryza sativa L.)-based cropping systems in
South Asia, mainly in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Improved management practices such
as reduced- and no-tillage management, nitrogen (N) fertilizer and farmyard manure (FYM) application, and crop residue
addition can improve SOC accumulation. Positive effects of no-tillage, crop residue addition, N addition through manure or
compost application, and integration of organic and chemical fertilizers on SOC accumulation in rice-based cropping systems
have been documented from South Asia. However, limited data and enormous discrepancies in SOC measurements across
the region exist as the greatest challenge in increasing SOC sequestration and improving agricultural sustainability. More
research on SOC as influenced by alternative tillage, crop residue, and nutrient management systems, and development
of SOC monitoring system for existing long-term experiments will advance our understanding of the SOC dynamics in ricebased cropping systems and improve agricultural system sustainability in South Asia.
Keywords: carbon mapping, carbon sequestration, crop residue, no-tillage, rice-wheat system

1. Introduction

Received 16 October, 2015 Accepted 4 March 2016

Correspondence Rajan Ghimire, Tel: +1-575-985-2292,
2016, CAAS. All rights reserved. Published by Elsevier Ltd.
doi: 10.1016/S2095-3119(16)61337-0

Agriculture faces significant challenges to meet the need

of food production without significantly increasing the area
under cultivation (Stevenson et al. 2013) and degrading the
environment (Hobbs et al. 2008). In recent years, challenges in sustainable food production have remained in part due
to climate change (Palm et al. 2013; Paudel et al. 2014a).
Improved management practices such as reduced- or no-tillage management, crop residue addition, crop rotation, and

*** et al. Journal of Integrative Agriculture 2016, 15(0): 60345-7

balanced nutrient application increases soil organic carbon

(SOC) and improves agricultural sustainability (Six et al.
2002; West and Post 2002; VandenBygaart et al. 2003).
Rice-based cropping systems in South and Southeast Asia
that include irrigated continuous rice cropping, rice-wheat
rotation, and rainfed rice-based mixed farming in upland
areas feed more than 1.5 billion people (Cassman 1999).
A typical rice-based system in South Asia follows traditional
cultivation techniques that involve wet plowing (puddling),
followed by transplanting rice seedlings grown in a seedbed
in the summer (Hobbs et al. 2008). Wheat or other crops
in a rotation are grown in the winter using traditional desi
plow or moldboard plow tillage. There is a growing interest
towards the use of conservation management systems, such
as reduced-tillage, no-tillage, crop residue addition, and
improved nutrient management practices in rice and other
crops in rotation for sustainably increasing food production
in South Asia (Carter 2002; Erenstein and Laxmi 2008;
Johnston et al. 2009).
The conservation systems that reduce soil disturbance
and retain residue at the soil surface can improve soil fertility status, soil aggregation, water infiltration, and nutrient
availability (Lal 2004a, b). Improved SOC accumulation
is associated with a greater microbial and root growth,
nutrient and water supply, soil aggregation, and better pH
and temperature regulation (Lal et al. 2007). However,
information regarding effects of management practices
on SOC accumulation in rice-based cropping systems in
South Asia is very limited. Studies on SOC sequestration
and sustainable crop production are primarily focused in the
temperate region, where the rate of SOC decomposition is
relatively slow (Halvorson et al. 2002). Therefore, recent
interest in soil quality and sustainable crop production in
South Asia warrants comprehensive analysis of the existing
knowledge, research gap, and challenges in crop production
in the region (Palm et al. 2013). Reduced- or no-tillage
management and crop residue addition may benefit nutrient-depleted agroecosystems in South and Southeast Asia.
This is because the response of the changes in management
practices, such as crop residue addition and improved nutrient management, are observed more rapidly and in greater
magnitude in highly depleted soils in the tropical than in
the temperate region (Tirol-Padre et al. 2007). Improving
agronomic and ecological benefits of greater SOC storage
requires more information on management practices that
increase C inputs and mitigate the loss of accrued benefits.
This paper summarizes state-of-knowledge on the effects
of tillage, nutrients, and residue management practices on
SOC dynamics in rice-based cropping systems in South
Asia. Our objectives were to (I) briefly discuss the status
of rice-based cropping systems in South Asia, (II) compare
the conventional and conservation practices, mainly tillage,

residue and nutrient management to improve SOC accumulation, and (III) highlight the opportunities, challenges,
and research gaps to increase sustainability of rice-based
production systems in South Asia.
Agroecosystem of South Asia represents the area of
humid to sub-humid tropical and sub-tropical climate with
frequent extreme precipitation events during summer. The
region spreads around 642 millon ha area and resides 1.6
billion people (FAO 2013). Precipitation ranges from 1 000
to 2 000 mm, approximately 70% of which occurs during
the summer monsoon, and facilitates rice production (Yao
et al. 2008; Ghimire et al. 2012). Continuous rice cultivation is commonly practiced in irrigated areas and lowland
environments, where continuous embankment of water is
possible, or water supply is assured throughout the year.
Areas that do not have a year-round water supply are used
for growing rice in rotation with other crops such as wheat
(Triticum aestivum L.), maize (Zea mays L.), and vegetables.
In South Asia, continuous rice cropping and rice-wheat
rotation occupy approximately 26% of the cultivated land
with additional 30% area under the rainfed mixed farming
that includes upland rice production (FAO 2001). Upland
rice is produced in areas with low precipitation and limited
opportunities for irrigation.
We mapped SOC distribution at different soil depths in
South Asian landscape and reviewed SOC accumulation as
influenced by tillage, crop residue, and nutrient management
practices in rice-based cropping systems. The SOC map
was developed at the spatial resolution of 1 km (Fig. 1) using
a SoilGrids1km - a global 3D soil information system using
a spatial prediction function for some selected soil properties
at six standard depths. To our knowledge, this map is the
first of its kind to demonstrate SOC distribution in South
Asia. The spatial data delineating the rice production area
is not available for the entire region. However, rice-based
production system predominates the region and SOC mapping for the entire region provides a baseline for South Asia
and serves as a good reference for comparing SOC in the
future. In this map, field-based soil profile data and various
covariate layers representing soil forming factors were used
to predict SOC distribution. 2D and 3D regression and regression-kriging were combined with splines for numerical
properties as implemented in the GSIF package of R. The
regression was fitted using general linear models (GLMs)
with a log-link function to predict SOC by using field-based
measurements (Hengl et al. 2014; ISRIC 2015). Selection of
spatial prediction models for making these maps was based
on the iterative evaluation for each soil variable by assessing
the success of cross-validation (Hengl et al. 2014). We also
cross checked the mapped and measured SOC values in
long-term experimental locations across the region, which
revealed reasonable accuracy of kriging-based data to es-

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Fig. 1 Soil organic carbon distribution in different soil depths in South Asia.

timate SOC distribution in the landscape. Studies revealed

that the kriging based interpolation techniques provide a
more accurate prediction for the spatial pattern of the soil
properties than other approaches (Ismaili et al. 2014).
In review and synthesis of literature, we included peer-reviewed journal papers that evaluated cropping systems,
specifically continuous rice cropping, rice-wheat system,
and upland rice-based systems in Bangladesh, Bhutan,
India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Keywords such as
SOC, C sequestration, soil organic matter (SOM), rice and
wheat, rice-wheat system, rice-rice system, and cropping
systems in South Asia were used for the literature search in
the Web of Science database (http://apps.webofknowledge.
com). Additional keywords included country names such
as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri
Lanka. Peer-reviewed scientific papers and gray literature
that include publications from key institutions involved in
related studies were also searched in Google Scholar and
screened to identify the relevant materials. In this paper,
the typical practice refers to the use of traditional desi plow
or moldboard plow for tillage, and no fertilizer and organic
residue addition for soil fertility management. Alternative

management refers to any modification to typical practice

that increases agronomic and environmental benefits by
building SOM, mainly through reduced soil disturbance, and
increased nutrient supply. Relevant peer-reviewed papers
from other regions besides South Asia were also used to
improve our understanding of the SOC dynamics and to
strengthen sustainability of rice-based cropping systems.

2. Soil organic carbon distribution in

South Asia
Soils in South Asia are developed on the Himalayan residuum and provide major crop production pockets in the embankment of the major rivers flowing through the landscape.
Interaction among landscape and environmental variables,
such as temperature, precipitation, and slope and aspect of
the landscape influence SOC distribution in the soil profile.
Map of SOC distribution at different soil depths indicated
that temperature and rainfall were the major covariates
that control SOC accumulation (Fig. 1). For example,
higher SOC content in the high mountains is attributable
to moderate to low temperature and high precipitation that

*** et al. Journal of Integrative Agriculture 2016, 15(0): 60345-7

supports extensive vegetative growth and low rate of SOM

decomposition (Gami et al. 2001; Bhattacharyya et al.
2012a). As in many other landscapes, the SOC content
is distinctively high in the top soils, in comparison to the
soils below 30 cm depth. In comparison to the sub-tropical
and temperate parts of Himalaya, the SOC content in the
tropical rice-growing regions is relatively low. This might be
because of the increased mineralization and oxidation of the
organic matter owing to high ambient temperature. Areas
under conservation systems are relatively small in South
Asia and a finer scale mappping may require to distinguish
the effects of alternative management systems on SOC
distribution in the profile. However, this gives insight into
the importance of understanding on the distribution of SOC
in the soil profiles as well as its spatiotermporal variability
for improving the sustainability of the rice-based production
systems in the region.

3. Rice-based cropping systems

Rice is a staple food crop for approximately 50% of the
worlds population and provides more than 50% of total calorie intake in many Asian countries (Bronson et al. 1997). It is
grown under upland and lowland ecosystems and occupies
more than 57 million ha area in South Asia only (Table 1).
Rice-based cropping systems include lowland continuous
rice cropping, rice-wheat rotation, maize-rice rotation, and
upland rice-winter crop systems (Hussain et al. 1999; Regmi
et al. 2002; Ladha et al. 2003; Hossain et al. 2016). The
rice-based cropping systems predominantly follow traditional
cultivation techniques that involve wet plowing (puddling)
of rice field followed by tillage with traditional desi plow or
moldboard plow system for other crops in the rotation (Hobbs
et al. 2008). In recent years, there is a growing interest in
reduced- or no-tillage rice and wheat production in some
parts of South Asia (Erenstein and Laxmi 2008).
Continuous rice cropping is an intensive farming practice in which a rice cultivated in the rainy season (planted
in June/July) is followed by one or two more rice crops in
a year depending on the availability of irrigation water and

length of the growing season. In this system, rice crop is

either transplanted or direct seeded, and heavily supplied
with nitrogen fertilizers (Bronson et al. 1998). Continuous
rice cropping contributes to approximately 76% of the global
rice production (Fageria et al. 2011), and occupies 7% of
the total area and 17% of total agricultural production in the
South Asia (FAO 2013).
Rice-wheat rotation is a common cropping system in the
South Asia with 13.5 million ha occurring in the prime agricultural regions of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal
(Ladha et al. 2003). The rotation produces more than 45% of
food in South Asia and provides staple grains for nearly 42%
of total population (Timsina et al. 2001; Regmi et al. 2002).
The rice-wheat system is practiced in irrigated lands (year
round or seasonally irrigated area) in which rice is grown
during the warm wet monsoon season (June/July) followed
by wheat in the relatively dry cold winter season. Straw is
commonly removed or burned after crop harvest to facilitate
better seedbed for the next crop (Aulakh et al. 2001). Application of farmyard manure is a common practice, but the
use is declining rapidly (Bronson et al. 1998). Historically,
the rice-wheat system gained wide acceptance in South Asia
in the 1960s after the introduction of high-yielding rice and
wheat varieties with the short growing season (Hobbs et al.
2008). However, long-term experiments in Nepal and India
indicated yield decline of rice under the rice-wheat system
(Nambiar1995; Bronson et al. 1998; Regmi et al. 2000).
Besides, high fertilizer inputs in the system are associated
with environmental problems throughout the intensively
cropped area (Byerlee 1992).
Upland rice production is primarily a rainfed system
and practiced on freely drained soils. Historically, the
lands were subjected to shifting cultivation with long fallow
periods (Bronson et al. 1998). Lands are tilled before the
rainy season and seeds are broadcasted after two to three
tillage operations (Bronson et al. 1998; Bouman et al. 2007;
Seck et al. 2012). Since this system is heavily dependent
on precipitation input, upland rice yields is highly variable
within different parts of South Asia. The system also suffers
from lowest yield across the globe. There is a risk of crop

Table 1 Area under rice production and rice yield in irrigated, rainfed, upland, and flood prone areas in South Asia (Seck et al. 2012)
Sri Lanka

Total area
(million ha)

means no data.

Area (%) Yield (Mg ha1)


Production system
Area (%) Yield (Mg ha1) Area (%) Yield (Mg ha1)




Area (%) Yield (Mg ha1)



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failure attributed to weed competition, periodic drought,

disease incidence, and soil acidity or infertility (Bista et al.
2010; Seck et al. 2012).

4. Management effects on soil organic

Since the beginning of intensive agriculture, a significant
portion of SOC stock has been lost from agricultural soils.
The loss of SOC stock was approximately 60 and 75% of
SOC in native lands at the temperate and tropical ecosystems (Lal et al. 2007; Ghimire et al. 2015). In South Asia,
cultivation of native soil for agriculture has a long history
and soil C in the cultivated land range from 8 to 10 g kg1, a
low level resulting from nutrient depletion, intensive tillage,
erosion, unbalanced fertilization, and residue removal (Lal
2004a). In Bangladesh alone about 16.2 Mg C ha1 was
removed from a soil between 1967 and 1995 due to agricultural practices (Lal 2004a). A considerable decrease in
crop production in long-term research sites across the South
Asia also suggest a loss of SOC in agricultural soils in the
region (Dawe et al. 2000; Regmi et al. 2002; Ladha et al.
2003; Hobbs et al. 2008). Reduced stable soil aggregates
facilitate the formation of compact layers beneath the tillage
depth and severe soil cracking in the intensively puddled
rice soils suggests low SOC content in the soil profiles
(Hobbs et al. 2008).
Loss of SOC from rice-based cropping systems, however,
has not been widely accepted and long-term trend of SOC
with alternative agricultural management practices has not
been extensively studied. Puddled rice agroecosystems are
historically recognized as a cropping system being used for
centuries without declining soil fertility (Lal et al. 2007). Rice
planted under flooded condition has lower SOC loss due
to reduced decomposition of SOM in soils flooded during
summer and autumn seasons (Olk et al. 1996; Kukal et al.
2009). However, some other studies report soil chemical
changes under reduced environment and extremely limited
O2 supply in the floodwater system considerably influence
SOC dynamics (Bronson et al. 1997). Major processes
influencing SOC dynamics in water-logged soil environment of rice field include changes in redox potential, soil
pH, reduction of C, N, and sulfur (S) (Fageria et al. 2011).
For example, SOC is lost as CO2 and CH4 emissions from
anaerobic soils via sequential oxidation- reduction reactions
mediated by diverse microbial groups (Faulkner 2004).
Organic matter+O2CO2+H2O [Mediated by obligate
Organic matter+NO3N2+CO2+H2O [Facultative anaerobes]
Organic matter+MnO2Mn2++CO2+H2O [Facultative

Organic matter+Fe (OH)3Fe2++CO2+H2O [Facultative

Organic matter+SO42S2+CO2+H2O [Obligate anaerobes]
Organic matter+CO2CH4+H2O [Obligate anaerobes]
Highly reduced soils, such as flooded rice soils, contribute
to methane (CH4) emission, which has adverse effects on
the environment. Total anthropogenic CH4 emission in 2010
has reached nearly 8 Gt CO2-C eqv. yr1 (IPCC 2013). Of
the major agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions, rice
paddies contribute 11% of total annual CH4 emissions (Smith
et al. 2007). Mid-season drainage, intermittent flooding, or
rotation of flooded rice with upland cropping can mitigate
CH4 emissions from rice-based cropping systems (Weller
et al. 2016). Drying and rewetting in rice double cropping,
and seasonal drying in rice-wheat and rice-maize rotations
may enhance competition between aerobic, facultative anaerobic, and obligate anaerobic microorganisms to utilize
available organic substrates (Le Mer and Roger 2001). Wetting and drying also increases labile SOC fractions, which
can be easily lost in subsequent soil disturbance (Shrestha
et al. 2002). Consequently, intermittent drainage results in
more rapid and greater loss of SOC than SOC loss from
continuously flooded soils (Cassman et al. 1996). Studies
also reveal that production of nitrous oxide (N2O) from nitrification and denitrification occurs at higher redox levels
than the redox level of CH4 production (Masscheleyn et al.
1993). This may cause a greater SOC loss as CO2, and
additional influence on global warming through N2O emission compared to that in the continuously flooded systems.
Tillage, crop residue, and nutrient management practices
are likely to influence SOC dynamics in agricultural soils
(Table 2). Studies suggest that soil management practices,
such as intensive tillage and crop residue burning or removal, contribute to SOC loss (Bronson et al. 1998; Lal et al.
2007; Ghimire et al. 2015). In many cases, the amounts
of biomass C produced and/or utilized also depend on the
tillage intensity and nutrient management practices (Fig. 2).
Conservation practices such as reduced- and no-tillage
are interlinked with crop residue and nutrient management
(fertilizers, manure, and green manures), which influences
SOC accrual and C dynamics in cropping systems (Ladha
et al. 2011; Bhattacharyya et al. 2012b; Ghimire et al. 2012).

4.1. Tillage management

Tillage with a moldboard plow or a traditional desi plow is
a typical conventional tillage practice in South Asia. Conventional tillage inverts soil, mixes crop residues, breaks
soil aggregates, and exposes SOM to wetting and drying
cycle (Bossuyt et al. 2002). Repeated tillage in the typical
conventional system is practiced to prepare a good seed bed




FYM, farm yard manure; NPK , nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (chemical fertilizers). The same as below.

Hossain et al. (2016)

Rice-wheat-fallow, Legume integration, integrated nutrient
farmers practice on
fertility management






Bhattacharyya et a. (2012a)
Conventional tillage
Majumder et al. (2008)
NPK + FYM, straw and green manure
Sharma and Prasad (2008)
No crop residue
Crop residue
Rasool et a. (2007)
No fertilizer and FYM
Manna et al. (2005)
Bhandari et al. (2002)
No fertilizer
Sharma and Bhushan (2001)
Organic residue addition
Yadav et al. (2000)
No fertilizer
Chettri et al. (2003)
No fertilizer , green
manure and FYM
Alam et al. (2014)
Conventional till, deep
Hossain (2009)
Conventional till
No-tillage, crop residue retention

Sandy Loam
Sandy clay loam
Silty loam
Chitwan, Nepal
Chitwan, Nepal
Bhairahawa, Nepal
Parwanipur, Nepal

Uttranchal, India
Sandy clay loam
Sandy loam
West Bengal, India
New Delhi, India
Sandy clay loam
Ludhiana, India
Sandy loam
Barrackpore, India
Sandy loam
Ludhiana, India
Loamy sand
Palampur, India
Silty clay loam
Various Locations, India Sandy loam-clay loam
Wangdue- Phodrang,
Sandy clay loam/silty
Gazipur, Bangladesh, Grey Terrace soils/clay Wheat-Mung beanloam
Rajshahi, Bangladesh
Silty loam
Wheat-Mung beanRice
Rajshahi, Bangladesh
Silty loam
Rice-based rotations

Paudel et al. (2014b)

Ghimire et al. (2012)
Regmi et al. (2002)
Gami et al. (2001)

Typical practice
Conventional tillage
Conventional tillage
No fertilizer
Control/ no fertilizer

Cropping system
Soil type


Table 2 Effects of alternative management on soil organic carbon in rice-based annual rotations in South Asia

Alternative management
No tillage, crop residue retention
FYM, chopped wheat straw added


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for crop establishment. However, repeated

tillage along with residue removal and low- or
no fertilizer applications caused depletion in
SOC content, specifically from the top 10- to
15-cm depths. It has been estimated that
loss of SOC stock in a conventionally tilled
soils were as high as 75% of the SOC stock in
the native lands (Lal et al. 2007). Changes in
SOC level after introduction of conservation
tillage practices in conventionally tilled ricebased systems in South Asia have not been
documented very well. Information is further
constrained in rice-rice system across the
region, and all cropping systems in countries
other than India. Analyzing C sequestration
rates in 67 long-term studies consisting of
276 paired treatments in different cropping
systems across tropical and temperate regions, West and Post (2002) demonstrated
that transitioning from conventional tillage to
no-tillage could result in SOC sequestration
of (0.570.14) Mg C ha1 yr1. The potentials
of SOC sequestration ranged from 0.10 to
0.50 Mg ha1 yr1 for humid temperate regions
and from 0.05 to 0.20 Mg ha1 yr1 for semiarid and tropical regions (Lal 2004b).
Studies reporting SOC dynamics in the
conventional and alternative tillage systems
demonstrated benefits of reducing intensity
and frequency of soil disturbance to increase
SOC content for improving soil quality and
agricultural sustainability (Table 2). In a
3-year study in a rice-wheat system, SOC
content was 0.22% greater under no-tillage
raised bed than under conventional tillage
(Hossain 2009). Studies on plains of Nepal
revealed 9.89% greater SOC in 050 cm soil
profile under no-tillage than under conventional tillage in a rice-wheat system (Ghimire
et al. 2012). The significant fraction of SOC
under no-tillage was accumulated in surface
soil with 28.3% greater SOC content in 05
cm depth of no-tillage system than that in the
conventional tillage system. A study in a ricewheat system at Varanasi, India compared
four tillage treatments consisting of tillage
timing and intensity, and revealed that no-tillage before sowing of rice and wheat could
increase SOC by 0.59 Mg C ha1 yr1 (Pandey
et al. 2014). The rate of SOC sequestration
due to reduced- or no-tillage management
in rice-based systems in South Asia varied

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Soil C storage

Tillage management

Residue management


Burning in fall or spring

No -tillage/direct drilling

Surface mulching

Moldboard plow/desi plow

Residue incorporation
under conventional tillage


Nutrient management
Soil C sources

Aboveground biomass

Chemical fertilizer

Belowground root biomass

Manure, compost, green

Root exudates and rhizodeposits

Microbial biomass

Organic amendments

Legume integration,
microbial fertilizers

Soil C loss

Fig. 2 Conceptual framework to describe the influence of tillage, residue, and nutrient management practices on soil organic
carbon in rice-based cropping systems. Carbon sources are present in a box marked with solid lines, and management practices
are shown in boxes with dotted lines.

from 0- to 2114 kg ha1 yr1 (Lal et al. 2007; Bhattacharyya

et al. 2012a; Ghimire et al. 2012). Greater SOC content
under reduced- and no-tillage systems are largely due to
higher soil aggregation and conservation in micro- and
macroaggregates (Bhattacharyya et al. 2012a). Besides,
the conservation practices are widely adopted to minimize
wind and water erosion. For example, conservation tillage
systems leave more than 30% of crop residues on the soil
surface (CTIC 2015). No-till, a system in which crops are
sown without prior cultivation of the soil and very shallow
(<5 cm) disturbance during seed sowing, significantly benefit
soils by minimizing SOC loss during wind and water erosion (Baker et al. 2007). Reduced-tillage along with crop
residues addition also benefit agroecosystems due to their
effects on nutrient accumulation, crop yield, and improved
agroecosystem resilience (Ladha et al. 2011; Alam et al.
2014). Nonetheless, the rate of SOC sequestration in
rice-based system is not clearly understood as long-term

inventory of SOC under alternative tillage, crop residue, and

fertility management practices, specifically, in continuous
rice cropping or rice upland crops (other than wheat)
rotations in South Asia are not available (Dawe et al. 2000;
Lal et al. 2007).

4.2. Crop residue management

High yields and intensive land use in irrigated rice-based
cropping systems produce a large quantity of crop residues
(Sharma and Bhusan 2001). Crop residues are burnt or
removed after crop harvest in South and Southeast Asia to
minimize possible yield loss in subsequent crop due to poor
plant establishment and insects, pests, and diseases (Bijay-Singh et al. 2002). In Punjab and Haryana, India where
about 90 and 45% of the area under rice are harvested by
machine, stubble burning is the easiest and the cheapest
way to remove crop residues from fields. In these states,

*** et al. Journal of Integrative Agriculture 2016, 15(0): 60345-7

over 80% of the rice straw and nearly 50% of the wheat straw
are burnt after crop harvest (Katyal et al. 2001). In recent
years, crop residues have been removed for other purposes
such as bioethanol production, mushroom cultivation, and
bedding material for farm animals (Ptn et al. 2004; Gadde
et al. 2009; Dahiya et al. 2013). Rice and wheat residues
are also used as animal feed since centuries in South Asia.
However, crop residue burning or removal is not desired
as it reduced SOC content and negatively influenced the
sustainability of the rice-wheat system. Retention of crop
residues in a field after crop harvest can supply essential
plant nutrients, accumulate SOC, and thereby maintain
or improve soil fertility status (Walters et al. 1992). Crop
residue is a primary substrate for SOC accrual and improvement of soil productivity (Havlin et al. 1990). They supply
essential plant nutrients upon mineralization and improves
soil biophysical conditions (Nyborg et al. 1995). For example, rice straw contains 58 kg N, 0.71.2 kg P, 1217 kg K,
0.51 kg S, 34 kg Ca and 13 kg per 1000 kg straw on dry
weight basis (Dobermann and Witt 2000). These nutrients
are released upon the decomposition of the crop residue
and support SOC accumulation as well as crop production.
The benefits of sequestering SOC by adding crop residues have been well documented in the temperate regions
(Aulakh et al. 2001). Relatively less information is available
from tropical systems, specifically from rice-based production systems in South Asia (Table 2). In the conventionally
tilled rice-wheat system in Nepal, Ghimire et al. (2012) did
not find any significant effect of crop residues incorporation
to increase SOC in a conventionally tilled rice-wheat system.
However, SOC content was 11% greater under no-tillage and
residue added treatments than under conventional tillage
and no residue added treatments. The recent development
of machinery for simultaneously mulching rice straw while
sowing wheat allows surface application of rice residue,
which may be a significant achievement for tropical soils
such as in South Asia to avoid crop residue burning or incorporation (Sidhu et al. 2007). Surface application of crop

residue is less likely to cause N immobilization, a common

problem in soil that incorporates crop residues with high C:N
ratio, rather improves soil water conservation and weed suppression (Sharma and Prasad 2008; Thuy et al. 2008). Use
of wheat mulch (3 ton ha1 yr1) appears to increase SOC
stock compared to other mulch, such as cassia (3 ton ha1)
and ipomoea mulch (3 ton ha1) applications in a rice-wheat
system (Duxbury and Lauren 2004). Similarly, incorporation
of wheat residues in flooded rice could increase C storage
and maintain high grain yields (Aulakh et al. 2001). In the
11 years of continuous rice-wheat rotation, application of
farm yard manure (FYM) and incorporation of rice straw
before seeding wheat improved SOC content by 34%, and
an addition of rice residue with N fertilizer increased SOC
by 84% (Benbi et al. 2012). Effects of residue addition on
SOC accumulation has not been reported from continuous
rice system in South Asia. Continuous rice cropping in
Philippines revealed that SOC was maintained or slightly
increased even without residue addition indicating greater
efficiency of rice-rice system than other rice-upland crop
rotations (Pampolino et al. 2008).

4.3. Nutrient management

Improved nutrient management practices are important for
increasing crop production and improving SOC sequestration (Table 3). The SOC content increased with application
of FYM and compost in a rice-rice-wheat system in Nepal
(Regmi et al. 2002). Nutrients addition through organic
sources can accumulate 18 to 62% more SOC than under
nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (NPK) addition through
chemical fertilizers in a rice-wheat system (Gami et al. 2001).
Kukal et al. (2009) also observed that SOC concentration in
the 060 cm soil profile was higher under FYM application
(1.8 to 6.2 g kg1) followed by NPK application (1.7 to 5.3
g kg1) when compared to control plots. Combinations of
organic and inorganic fertilizer can augment SOC accumulation and improve crop production (Rasool et al. 2007;

Table 3 Soil organic carbon in rice-based cropping systems after 20 years of alternative fertility treatments in India and Nepal
After 20 years (g kg1)1)

Bhubneshwar, India
Faizabad, India
Karnal, India
Pantnagar, India
Pantnagar, India


(g kg1)

Bhairahawa, Nepal
Barrackpore, India











Ludhiana, India

Cropping system

Control, no fertilizer addition.

Lal et al. (2004a)
Lal et al. (2004a)
Lal et al. (2004a)
Ram (2000)
Ram (2000)
Regmi et al.
Saha et al. (2000)
Rekhi et al.


*** et al. Journal of Integrative Agriculture 2016, 15(0): 60345-7

Hossain et al. 2016). Greater SOC content was observed

under poultry litter and cattle manure application in ricewheat-legume rotation compared to farmers practice of no
manure and fertilizer application in the rice-wheat-fallow
system in Bangladesh (Hossain 2009). Similarly, manure or
straw addition when combined with NP fertilizer increased
SOC content by 0.30 Mg ha1 yr1 in a rice-wheat rotation
(Fang et al . 2005). Majumder et al. (2008) from a 19year study in a rice-wheat system in India indicated that
application of NPK and organic amendments (FYM, straw,
and green manure) could increase SOC by 24%. Soil C
sequestration rate vary from 0.08 to 0.98 t ha1 yr1 under
inorganic and organic fertilizers application in rice-wheat
systems in the Indo-Gangetic plains of India and Nepal
(Duxbury 2001). The increase was partly attributable to
high stubble and root biomass retention (Manna et al. 2005).
However, the amount of SOC accumulation by improved
nutrient management varied with soil type, climate, and
initial fertility status of the soil. Urea deep placement in a
rice-rice system in Bangladesh reduced N loss as N2O and
increased crop yield, which can mitigate global warming
and increase SOC through greater biomass production than
those effects of conventionally applied urea (Gaihre et al.
2015). This study did not measure SOC change with urea
deep placement in a rice-rice system. Increase in SOC with
fertilizer/manure application, however, was observed only
after 1215 years in a rice-wheat system in India (Yadav
et al. 2000). This may be because effects of nutrient management on SOC accrual are indirect through their impact
on yield and biomass production.
Use of legume crops in the rotation could complement
to the effects of organic and inorganic fertilizers to increase
SOC accrual. Legumes fix atmospheric N into the soil and
increase grain yield of subsequent crop, plant residue input,
and consequently total SOC in legumes-cereals rotations
(Shah et al. 2003; Shah et al. 2011). Rekhi et al. (2000)
reported an increase in SOC by more than two-folds within
13 years of rice-wheat annual rotation when legumes were
integrated into a crop rotation. A long-term experiment
in Pakistan revealed an increase in grain and straw yield
and thereby greater SOC storage with the use of effective
microorganisms (Hussain et al. 1999). This study reported
that effective microorganisms increased SOC, but the data
of SOC change was not reported. Application of bio-nutrient
containing Pseudomonas mycostraw, cyanobacteria, and
Azospirillum increased SOC by 14 to 18% in a rice field in
Bihar, India (Jha et al. 2013). Application of bioinoculants
and retention of crop residues conjointly help maintain C and
N balance in soil and enhance labile C pool in rice-legumerice cropping systems (Thakuria et al. 2009). Chhetri et al.
(2003) documented benefits of using FYM, fertilizers, and
green manure in rice-wheat system of Bhutan. Nonethe-

less, adoption of integrated nutrient management strategy

that uses organic sources, legume crops in rotation, and
balanced application of chemical fertilizer can increase
SOC and improve the sustainability of rice-based production

5. Challenges and opportunities in sustaining soil organic carbon in rice-based

production systems
South Asia has the largest food-insecure population in the
world, and rice and wheat production are at the center of
food security in the region. Depletion of inherent capacity of
soil in sustaining crop production is the greatest challenge
for improving food security and sustainability of agriculture.
Lowland rice-based production systems are considered
the most stable and SOC conserving system (Lal 2004b).
Studies reveal positive effects of reduced- and no-tillage
management, crop residue addition, and improved nutrient
management strategies to improve SOC and crop yields.
However, information is not very abundant to have a definitive conclusion. Specifically, studies are more abundant
from the rice-wheat system, the predominant cropping
system in the region. Relative response of different ricebased rotations (e.g. rice-rice vs rice-vegetable, rice-maize)
to improve SOC under alternative management systems has
not been compared. Alternate drying and wetting in some
rice-based systems further complicated our understanding
of the responses of alternative tillage, crop residue, and
nutrient management practices. Similarly, knowledge gap
in disentangling the soil C pools under diverse agroecosystems and management practices limits our understanding
of turnover rate, storage, and loss of SOC in rice-based
production systems. In addition, farmers change cropping
pattern based on market demand with less attention toward
its conservation benefits. It takes several years to accumulate SOC in the profile as a result of no-tillage and other
conservation practices, and the accrued benefits are quickly
lost after cultivation (Ghimire et al. 2014). Keeping farmers
in same crop rotation and management practice is probably
the biggest challenge of improving sustainability, particularly
in small landholder farming in South Asia. These challenges
also open windows of opportunities for SOC monitoring,
modeling, and simulation studies in diverse management
practices and cropping systems.
Climate change and increasing climate variability has
posed additional challenges for sustainable food production
in South Asia. There is limited information regarding C sink
and C-climate feedback in South Asia in general and in ricebased production systems in particular. Cropping systems
have been changing from rice-rice and rice-wheat systems
to rice-vegetable systems to cope with climate change and

*** et al. Journal of Integrative Agriculture 2016, 15(0): 60345-7

increasing economic pressure (Paudel et al. 2014a). Labile

and recalcitrant C may behave differently in altered climate
and management conditions (Fang et al. 2005), and decomposition of SOC may increase positive feedback to climate
change (IPCC 2013). Studies show potential of no-tillage
and reduced-tillage systems in improving macro and micro-aggregation and SOC accumulation in soil aggregates
(He et al. 2011). Similarly, roots and root exudates have a
crucial role in SOC accrual in submerged soils, mainly by
contributing labile SOC (Lu et al. 2003; Li and Yagi 2004).
However, limited availability of such information from South
Asia limits our understanding of the regional potential to
sequester SOC and its dynamics under the ambient and
the climate change scenario.
Supply of nutrients from crop residues can affect the
timing and the amount of fertilizer required to optimize
crop yields (Thuy et al. 2008). It also affects the amount of
SOC sequestered in the system and its quality. There has
been significant improvement in technological innovations
in rice and other crops production in South Asia. System
of rice intensification, development of improved residue
management system, and other climate smart practices has
been recently introduced, which has opened the scope for
research on how these systems can maximize the benefits of
conservation tillage and soil fertility management practices
for the greater benefit of the producers. Understanding the
influence of alternate drying and wetting on crop residue
decomposition, nutrient dynamics, and SOC sequestration
is always a challenge (Wang et al . 2015). Successful integration of these emerging technologies in agroecosystems
under rice-based production systems creates new research
opportunities in South Asia.
Production of greenhouse gases like CH4 and N2O with
greater radiative forcing from rice fields is likely to offset the
benefits from SOC storage and mitigation of CO2 emission.
Understanding the fluxes of greenhouse gas under different tillage, alternative residue and nutrient management
practices, their carbon equivalent, and net carbon storage
are important in policy initiatives and climate change mitigation. More research should be focused on South Asia
in general and rice-based productions systems in specific
to improve our understanding of GHG emissions and SOC
sequestration as influenced by tillage, residue, and nutrient
management practices, with special focus on continuous
rice production systems of Bangladesh, Pakishthan and
rice-upland cropping systems in Nepal and Bhutan. Many
studies report rice-based systems as a contributor to GHG,
but net primary production in continuous rice cropping system in India was greater than net ecosystem respiration
suggesting net sink of C in lowland rice-based systems
(Bhattacharya et al. 2014). In addition, increasing use of
conservation practices has changed rice-based production


systems from source to sink of C.

Digital soil mapping for different soil types and spatial
variability in carbon are recently viewed as a valuable tool
in global change studies and carbon balance inventories
(Adhikari et al. 2014). Field-based data set could complement the mapping and modelling efforts. Collaboration
among researchers, agencies, and organizations at local,
national, and regional level for data sharing and data
networking may improve understanding of SOC storage,
C balance in soil-plant-atmosphere continuum, and GHG
exchange. This will be a great asset for South Asia, specifically, where long-term field-based data are not available
to have a good estimate of SOC change as influenced by
agricultural management systems.
Monitoring SOC over time provides the most reliable
estimate of SOC dynamics, but obtaining a good estimate
requires many years. The IPCC Good Practice Guidance for croplands indicates that significant changes in
SOC stocks should be determined using measurements of
minimum 20 years in the tropical region (http://www.ipcc.
ch). Spatial and temporal variability in SOC due largely to
climate and soil properties is widely accepted. Effects of
changes in land use and soil management practices are
often confounded with natural spatiotemporal variability
in SOC distribution (Ogle et al. 2003; Post et al. 2008).
Agricultural management has altered SOC dynamics and
increased uncertainty in modeling SOC (Ogle et al. 2003).
Continued measurement and improved understanding of
spatiotemporal variability in soil properties and transient
and steady-state effects of climatic variables on SOC storage in agroecosystems are important (Schimel 1995) and
long-term field studies are likely to reduce uncertainties in
SOC estimation (VandenBygaart et al. 2003). Long-term
experiments have been established in rice growing regions
of the South Asia, but monitoring of SOC in these long-term
experiments have not been commonly practiced. Besides,
the precision of different analytical methods (loss-on-ignition,
dry combustion, Walkley and Black etc.) may vary from 1 to
15.8 % of the SOC estimated using dry combustion method
(Ogle et al. 2003). The SOC is not measured by the same
laboratory method in different experiments across the region. Uncertainties in SOC estimation; primarily governed
by laboratory measurement methods and spatial landscape
unit errors, could be minimized by standardizing field and
laboratory analysis methods of existing long-term studies
across the region.

6. Conclusion and recommendations

Rice-based production systems in South Asia has depleted a
significant amount of SOC and threatened the sustainability
of agriculture in the region. Conservation management sys-


*** et al. Journal of Integrative Agriculture 2016, 15(0): 60345-7

tems such as reduced- and no-tillage, crop residue addition,

FYM incorporation, and integrated nutrient management
increased SOC accumulation and improved sustainability of
agricultural systems. No-tillage increased soil aggregation,
improved other soil properties, and favorably influenced
SOC accretion. Effects of crop residue addition are often observed when it was integrated with reduced-tillage systems
or with improved nutrient management. Applications of N
fertilizers with FYM and crop residues increased stubble
and root biomass yield, and improved SOC accumulation,
in some cases up to 84% of the SOC stock in typically
disturbed soils. The effect of NPK, and NPK and FYM is
greater in rice-rice crop rotation compared to the rice-wheat
rotation. This study also revealed several challenges
and research opportunities for monitoring and modeling
impacts of alternative tillage, crop residue, and nitrogen
management practices to improve SOC sequestration and
enhance agricultural sustainability. Evaluating SOC dynamics of different rice-based systems under present and
projected climate change scenario, alternative management practices, and their potential impacts on agricultural
system sustainability would substantially benefit producers,
researchers, and policy makers. Improved understanding
of SOC dynamics and soil-plant-atmosphere interaction
of GHGs in continuously flooded, intermittently flooded,
and upland rice-based systems would help to estimate
global warming potential of South Asian agriculture and
other similar agroecosystems in the world. More research
evaluating impacts of alternative management systems on
SOC dynamics and GHG emissions is required. Specifically, understanding SOC and nutrient dynamics during
transition from conventional to conservation systems are
required. Data on the effects of nutrient management
practices on crop yield of rice-wheat system are relatively
abundant, meta-analysis may improve our understanding
of nutrient management practices for improving sustainability of rice-wheat system in the region. Mapping SOC
changes in the landscape, collaboration and data sharing
among researchers, and standardizing SOC estimation
methods among existing long-term studies can help to
offset barrier of limited data availability in the region, and
improve soil quality and agricultural systems sustainability
of rice-based production systems.

We are grateful to Drs. Jim Rasmussen and Tek B. Sapkota for review and suggestions on the earlier version of
the manuscript. We would also like to thank anonymous
reviewers for their helpful comments and constructive inputs
that improved the manuscript.

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