Natural Resources, School of


Date of this Version



Shi, JR. 2013. Decomposition and Nutrient Release of Different Cover Crops in Organic Farm Systems (Master Thesis). University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE.


A THESIS Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Master of Science, Major: Natural Resource Sciences, Under the Supervision of Professor James R. Brandle. Lincoln, Nebraska: June, 2013

Copyright (c) 2013 Jianru Shi


Cover crops act as green manure adding organic matter to agricultural-soils. For legume green manures to be an effective nitrogen (N) source for organic farming systems, their N release must be in synchrony with crop N demand. The objectives of this study were 1) determine the decomposition rates of three common cover crops (white clover, (Trifolium repens,L ) red clover (Trifolium pratense L.) and soybean (Glycine max L) in order to determine when most N was released and its synchrony with subsequent corn crop uptake; 2) we focused on the effect of cover crops on soil N levels. This study was conducted in a certified organic field, near Mead, NE. We assessed the decomposition rates and chemical composition of three cover crops with different incorporation time (fall and spring). Cover crop samples were taken and air dried in fall and spring. Litterbags containing plant samples were buried at a depth of 15 cm in December, 2011 and March, 2012. The nine extraction times for fall treatment were 0, 12, 16, 20, 24, 28, 32, 40, 48 weeks after burial. For spring treatment, samples were dug up every four weeks. Soil samples from each experimental unit were taken at the same time. Extracted litterbags were oven-dried and samples were analyzed for biomass fractions (soluble, hemicellulose, cellulose, and lignin) and total C and N content. As conclusion, decomposition rates of five treatments follow the order: white clover incorporated in spring> red clover incorporated in spring> white clover incorporated in fall> red clover incorporated in fall> soybean incorporated in fall. Mass loss, nutrient content, and litter quality were all changed mostly in the first 0-3 months, which indicates that early stage of cover crops incorporation is critical to cover crop management. To describe the decomposition process, asymptotic models are more appropriate. Cover crops killed in spring have a better synchrony with corn uptake curve. After growing season, soil following red clover had greater level of soil nitrate-N.

Advisor: James R. Brandle