2023 journal article
Chemical differences in cover crop residue quality are maintained through litter decay
Ed(s): L. Villalobos
As plant litter decomposes, its mass exponentially decreases until it reaches a non-zero asymptote. However, decomposition rates vary considerably among litter types as a function of their overall quality (i.e., carbon:nitrogen (C:N) ratio and litter chemistry). We investigated the effects of hairy vetch (HV: Vicia villosa Roth):cereal rye (RYE: Secale cereale L.) biomass proportions with or without broadcasted poultry manure on overall litter quality before and during decomposition. As HV biomass proportions increased from 0 to 100%, the relative susceptibility of HV:RYE mixtures to microbial decomposition increased due to: (i) decrease in the initial C:N ratio (87:1 to 10:1 in 2012 and 67:1 to 9:1 in 2013), (ii) increase in the non-structural labile carbohydrates (33 to 61% across years), and (iii) decrease in the structural holo-cellulose (59 to 33% across years) and lignin (8 to 6% across years) fractions. Broadcasted poultry manure decreased the overall initial quality of HV-dominated litters and increased the overall initial quality of RYE-dominated litters. Across all HV:RYE biomass proportions with or without poultry manure, chemical changes during litter decay were related to proportional mass loss. Therefore, the relative decrease in carbohydrates and the concomitant increase in holo-cellulose and lignin fractions were more pronounced for fast decomposing litter types, i.e., litters dominated by HV rather than RYE. While our results suggest possible convergence of litter C:N ratios, initial differences in litter chemistry neither converged nor diverged. Therefore, we conclude that the initial chemistry of litter before decomposition exerts a strong control on its chemical composition throughout the decay continuum.