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Grassland conversion to arable land and greenhouse gas emissions


Influence of ploughing up grassland soils on processes of carbon and nitrogen transformation and their assessment with respect to climate change

Conversion of grassland to arable land induces enhanced emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. What is the magnitude of these enhanced emissions and can they be counteracted by avoiding soil tillage during conversion? These questions are tackled in two field studies in North-Rhine Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein.

Background and Objective

The conversion of grassland to arable land has strongly increased in Germany during the last years, which is in part due to the growing number of biogas plants. The ploughing-up of grassland is a potential threat for the atmosphere because it causes losses of soil organic matter and may favour soil emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O). Due to the lack of data, a site-specific assessment of the climate effect by grassland conversion to arable land is not possible until now. The aim of this project is to investigate how the conversion of grassland in arable land influences the exchange of greenhouse gases with the atmosphere due to changes in carbon and nitrogen transformation in soils. These studies will contribute to a better understanding of land use change effects in agriculture on the emission of greenhouse gases.

Target Group

Science, Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, associations of agriculture and environmental protection.


Field plot experiments were set up at two sites in Kleve and Trenthorst, where greenhouse gas emissions induced by conversion of grassland to arable was studied. Carbon and nitrogen dynamics are monitored at regular intervals during two years. N2O emissions are quantified using gas exchange measurements. Controlling processes are investigated by monitoring biological and chemical soil parameters and isotopic signatures in soil and in the gas phase. Mineralisation of organic carbon accumulated during the grassland phase is determined by CO2 flux measurements and stable isotopic signatures of carbon. Moreover, soil carbon and nitrogen inventories will be assessed.

Our Research Questions

  • To which extent is N2O emission and nitrate leaching enhanced by conversion of grassland to arable land?
  • What controls the enhanced fluxes and which processes are responsible?
  • How much mineral nitrogen is lost by denitrification?
  • How is the greenhouse gas emission affected by different techniques of grassland conversion (i.e. ploughing versus chemical kill-off of the sward followed by direct seeding).
  • How does grassland-derived organic matter mineralize over time following the conversion?
  • What is the role of soil microbial biomass during mineralisation?
  • What is the impact of the different methods of grassland conversion on forage yields and need-oriented fertilization?

Involved external Thünen-Partners

Funding Body

  • Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)
    (national, öffentlich)


1.2010 - 12.2014

More Information

Project funding number: DFG Graduiertnekolleg 1397
Project status: finished


  1. 0

    Gensior A, Roth G, Well R (2012) Landwirtschaftliche Bodennutzung : eine Bestandsaufnahme aus Sicht der Klimaberichterstattung. Bodenschutz 17(3):81-89

  2. 1

    Roth G, Gensior A, Helfrich M, Well R, Freibauer A, Flessa H (2010) Grünlandumbruch, Grünlanderneuerungsumbruch, Etablierung von Grünland (GURU) . KTBL Schr 483:271-274

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