Litter quantity, litter chemistry, and soil texture control changes in soil organic carbon fractions under bioenergy cropping systems of the North Central U.S.

Abstract

Soil organic carbon (SOC) storage is a critical component of the overall sustainability of bioenergy cropping systems. Predicting the influence of cropping systems on SOC under diverse scenarios requires a mechanistic understanding of the underlying processes driving SOC accumulation and loss. We used a density fractionation technique to isolate three SOC fractions that are conceptualized to vary in SOC protection from decomposition. The free light fraction (FLF) is particulate SOC that is present in the inter-aggregate soil matrix, the occluded light fraction (OLF) is contained within aggregates, and the heavy fraction (HF) is associated with minerals. We evaluated surface (0 to 10 cm depth) SOC fraction changes from baseline conditions 5 years after biofuel cropping system establishment at two temperate sites with contrasting soil textures. The biofuel cropping systems included no-till maize, switchgrass, prairie, and hybrid poplar. The FLF concentration (g fraction C g bulk soil−1) did not change significantly from baseline levels under any of the cropping systems at either site after 5 years. Except for poplar, OLF concentrations were reduced in all systems at the site with coarse-textured soils and maintained at the site with fine-textured soils. In poplar systems, OLF concentrations were maintained on coarse-textured soils and increased on fine-textured soils. The HF concentrations also increased under poplar on the coarse-textured soil. A structural equation model indicated that OLF concentrations increased with lower litter C:N, and HF concentrations increased with greater litter quantity and lower litter C:N mass ratios. C:N increased over time within all SOC fractions, suggesting that all pools are sensitive to land-use change on sub-decadal timescales. In agreement with modern SOC theory, our empirical results indicate that increasing litter input quantity and promoting plant species with low C:N litter may improve SOC storage in aggregate and mineral-associated soil fractions.

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Acknowledgements

Funding was provided by the DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (DOE BER Office of Science DE-FC02-07ER64494 and DOE OBP Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy DE-AC05-76RL01830), the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (Hatch project 0225417-WIS01586), the National Science Foundation (grant DEB-1038759), and the DOE Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research under Award Number DE-SC0018420). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Energy. L.G. Oates and G. Sanford provided technical support. Thanks to L. Szymanski and E. Atkinson for demonstrating the density fractionation method and to C. Cavadini, B. Dvorak, C. Rebman, and C. King for lab assistance. Additional thanks to the many individuals involved with the collection and processing of plant and soil samples and to S. Bohm and S. VanderWulp for help with the leaf litter data. We are grateful for feedback provided by M. Rickenbach, M. Ruark, E. Brzostek, and two anonymous reviewers on earlier versions of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Adam C. von Haden.

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von Haden, A.C., Kucharik, C.J., Jackson, R.D. et al. Litter quantity, litter chemistry, and soil texture control changes in soil organic carbon fractions under bioenergy cropping systems of the North Central U.S.. Biogeochemistry 143, 313–326 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-019-00564-7

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Keywords

  • Density fractionation
  • Soil carbon stabilization
  • Litter quality
  • Biofuels
  • Land-use change