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Sugar cane straw left in the field during harvest: decomposition dynamics and composition changes

de A. Sousa, José G., Cherubin, Maurício R., Cerri, Carlos E. P., Cerri, Carlos C., Feigl, Brigitte J.
Soil research 2017 v.55 no.8 pp. 758-768
bioenergy, ecosystem services, environmental impact, irrigation, models, soil, straw, sugarcane, vinasse, Brazil
The understanding of sugar cane straw decomposition dynamics is essential for defining a sustainable rate of straw removal for bioenergy production without jeopardising soil functioning and other ecosystem services. Thus, we conducted a field study in south-east Brazil over 360 days to evaluate sugar cane straw decomposition and changes in its composition as affected by increasing initial straw amounts and management practices. The sugar cane straw amounts tested were: (1) 3.5 Mg ha-1 (i.e. 75% removal); (2) 7.0 Mg ha-1 (i.e. 50% removal); (3) 14.0 Mg ha-1 (i.e. no removal); and (4) 21.0 Mg ha-1 (i.e. no removal plus 50% of the extra straw left on the field). In addition, two management practices were studied for the reference straw amount (14 Mg ha-1), namely straw incorporation into the soil and irrigation with vinasse. The findings showed that dry mass (DM) loss increased logarithmically as a function of the initial amount left on the soil surface. An exponential curve efficiently described straw DM and C losses, in which more readily decomposable compounds are preferably consumed, leaving compounds that are more recalcitrant in the late stages of decomposition. After 1 year of decomposition, net straw C and N losses reached approximately 70% and 23% respectively for the highest initial straw amounts. Straw incorporation in the soil significantly accelerated the decomposition process (i.e. 86% DM loss after 1 year) compared with maintenance of straw on the soil surface (65% DM loss after 1 year), whereas irrigation with vinasse had little effect on decomposition (60% DM loss after 1 year). We conclude that straw decomposition data are an essential starting point for a better understanding of the environmental effects caused by straw removal and other management practices in sugar cane fields. This information can be used in models and integrated assessments towards a more sustainable sugar cane straw management for bioenergy production.