Surface litter protects rangeland soils against wind and water erosion and provides food and nesting materials for wildlife and insects. However, the ability of grassland systems to provide these services depends on the little studied topic of seasonal surface litter decomposition. Seasonal and annual surface litter decomposition rates were determined between 2014 and 2015 in central and western South Dakota at three mixed-grass prairie locations. Residue bags containing surface litter were placed in the field in late fall (1 November) of 2014 and removed after the winter (1 April), spring (1 July), and summer + fall seasons (1 November) of 2015. The litter was analyzed for total C, total N, acid detergent fiber (ADF), and acid detergent lignin (ADL). Average winter temperatures ranged from –5°C to –15°C, while summer temperatures ranged from 10°C to 35°C. Litter decomposition was lowest during the winter (0.57–0.86 g [kg × day]–1) and greatest during the summer + fall (2.12–2.69 g [kg × day]–1). Over the entire season, 40.8–62% of the surface litter decomposed. Winter litter decomposition was positively correlated with air temperature (r = 0.62, P < 0.01) and snow depth (r = 0.61, P < 0.01), and negatively correlated with C/N ratio (r = –0.65, P < 0.01), ADF (r = –0.35, P < 0.05), and ADL (r = –0.25, P < 0.05) concentrations. These findings indicate that winter decomposition cannot be ignored and that winter surface litter decomposition increases with snow depth.
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Vol. 73 • No. 2