Impacts of management on decomposition and the litter-carbon balance in irrigated and rainfed no-till agricultural systems

Amy E. Kochsiek*, Johannes M.H. Knops, Daniel T. Walters, Timothy J. Arkebauer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


The litter carbon (C) pool of a single litter cohort in an agroecosystem is the difference between net primary productivity and decomposition and comprises 11-13% of the total C pool (litter and soil 0-15 cm depth) post-harvest. This litter-C pool is highly dynamic and up to 50% can be decomposed in the first 12 months of decomposition. Thus, understanding litter-C dynamics is key in understanding monthly and annual total ecosystem carbon dynamics. While the effects of management practices such as irrigation and fertilization on productivity are well understood, the effects on decomposition are less studied. While irrigation and fertilization increase productivity, this will only lead to increased litter-C residence time and litter-C pool accretion if these techniques do not also result in equivalent or greater increases in decomposition. Management could potentially have impacts on litter-C accretion by increasing litter inputs, changing plant-C allocation, plant tissue quality, or decomposition rates. We examined carbon loss of one annual cohort of maize litter using in situ nylon litter bags for 3 years in three no-till fields with differing management regimes: irrigated continuous maize with a pre-planting fertilization application and two fertigation events, irrigated maize-soybean rotation with the same fertilization regime as the irrigated continuous maize management regime, and rainfed maize-soybean rotation with a single pre-planting fertilization event. We addressed the effects of these different management regimes on net primary productivity and litter inputs, litter nitrogen (N) concentrations and carbon quality measures, plant C allocation, decomposition rates and the potential changes in the overall litter-C balance. We found that irrigation/fertigation management increased litter inputs, led to changes in plant tissue quality, had no effect on carbon allocation, and increased decomposition rates. This balance of both greater litter inputs and outputs of C from the irrigated management regimes led to a similar litter-C balance for this litter cohort in the irrigated and rainfed management regimes after 3 years of decomposition. Our data clearly show that merely increasing litter-C inputs through irrigation/fertigation practices is not sufficient to increase litter-C residence time because decomposition rates also increase. Therefore, close monitoring of decomposition rates is essential for understanding litter-C pool dynamics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1983-1993
Number of pages11
JournalAgricultural and Forest Meteorology
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 3 Nov 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Carbon loss
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Decomposition
  • Fertigation
  • Litter pools

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