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Chapter 3. Natural factors influencing the amount of organic matter

The transformation and movement of materials within soil organic matter pools is a dynamic process influenced by climate, soil type, vegetation and soil organisms. All these factors operate within a hierarchical spatial scale. Soil organisms are responsible for the decay and cycling of both macronutrients and micronutrients, and their activity affects the structure, tilth and productivity of the soil.

In natural humid and subhumid forest ecosystems without human disturbance, the living and non-living components are in dynamic equilibrium with each other (Figure 4). The litter on the soil surface beneath different canopy layers and high biomass production generally result in high biological activity in the soil and on the soil surface. Mollison and Slay (1991) distinguished the following five mechanisms:

This equilibrium creates almost closed-cycle transfers of nutrients between soil and the vegetation adapted to such site conditions, resulting in almost perfect physical and hydric conditions for plant growth, i.e. a cool microclimate, increased evapotranspiration, good rooting conditions with good porosity and sufficient soil moisture. This facilitates water infiltration and prevents erosion and runoff. Thus, it results in clean water in the streams emanating from the area, a relatively smooth variation in streamflow during the year, and recharge of groundwater.

Closed cycle

In human-managed systems, the soil biological activity is influenced by the land use system, plant types and the management practices. Chapter 4 outlines the influence of land management practices. The environmental and edaphic factors that control the activity of soil biota, and thus the balance between accumulation and decomposition of organic matter in the soil, are described below.


Several field studies have shown that temperature is a key factor controlling the rate of decomposition of plant residues. Decomposition normally occurs more rapidly in the tropics than in temperate areas. Ladd and Amato (1985) reported that, despite differences in plant material and climate patterns, the decomposition of leguminous materials in southern Australian sites followed the same pattern as that of ryegrass for sites in Nigeria and the United Kingdom (Jenkinson and Ayanaba, 1977), although the time scales were different. Reaction rates doubled for each increase of 8-9 °C in the mean annual air temperature. The relatively faster rate of decomposition induced by the continuous warmth in the tropics implies that high equilibrium levels of organic matter are difficult to achieve in tropical agro-ecosystems. Hence, large annual rates of organic inputs are needed to maintain an adequate labile soil organic matter pool in cultivated soils. Soils in cooler climates commonly have more organic matter because of slower mineralization (decomposition) rates.

Soil moisture and water saturation

Soil organic matter levels commonly increase as mean annual precipitation increases. Conditions of elevated levels of soil moisture result in greater biomass production, which provides more residues, and thus more potential food for soil biota.

Soil biological activity requires air and moisture. Optimal microbial activity occurs at near “field capacity”, which is equivalent to 60-percent water-filled pore space (Linn and Doran, 1984).

On the other hand, periods of water saturation lead to poor aeration. Most soil organisms need oxygen, and thus a reduction of oxygen in the soil leads to a reduction of the mineralization rate as these organisms become inactive or even die. Some of the transformation processes become anaerobic, which can lead to damage to plant roots caused by waste products or favourable conditions for disease-causing organisms. Continued production and slow decomposition can lead to very large organic matter contents in soils with long periods of water saturation (e.g. peat soils, and tea crops in India).

With the exception of the hyperhumid regions, the climates of vast areas of the humid, subhumid and semi-arid tropics are characterized by distinct wet and dry seasons. In the wet-dry tropics, large amounts of nitrate often occur in the surface soil during the first part of the rainy season (Greenland, 1958; Mueller-Harvey, Juo and Wild,1989). This accelerated nitrogen mineralization caused by a large increase in microbial activity is the result of the first few rains activating the labile soil organic matter.

Farmers who practise “slash and burn” agriculture often choose early planting in order to take advantage of this flush of inorganic N before it is lost through leaching and runoff. In these low-input systems, the amount of nitrate present in the soil during the early part of the rainy season is related closely to the organic matter content of the soil. N availability diminishes during the later part of the rainy season.

Soil texture

Soil organic matter tends to increase as the clay content increases. This increase depends on two mechanisms. First, bonds between the surface of clay particles and organic matter retard the decomposition process. Second, soils with higher clay content increase the potential for aggregate formation. Macroaggregates physically protect organic matter molecules from further mineralization caused by microbial attack (Rice, 2002). For example, when earthworm casts and the large soil particles they contain are split by the joint action of several factors (climate, plant growth and other organisms), nutrients are released and made available to other components of soil micro-organisms.

Under similar climate conditions, the organic matter content in fine textured (clayey) soils is two to four times that of coarse textured (sandy) soils (Prasad and Power, 1997).

Kaolinite, the main clay mineral in many upland soils in the tropics, has a much smaller specific surface and nutrient exchange capacity than most other clay minerals. Therefore, kaolinitic soils contain considerably fewer clay-humus complexes. In addition, the unprotected labile humic substances are vulnerable to decomposition under appropriate soil moisture conditions. Thus, high levels of organic matter are difficult to maintain in cultivated kaolinitic soils in the wet-dry tropics, because climate and soil conditions favour rapid decomposition. In contrast, organic matter can persist as organo-oxide complexes in soils rich in iron and aluminium oxides. Such properties favour the formation of soil microaggregates, typical of many fine-textured, oxide-rich, high base-status soils in the tropics (Uehara and Gilman, 1981). These soils are known for their low bulk density, high microporosity, and high organic-matter retention under natural vegetation, but also for their high phosphate fixation capacity on the oxides when used for crop production. Current knowledge suggests that whereas organic matter contributes to the dark colour of Vertisols (Coulombe, Dixon and Wilding, 1996), it is not considered important in determining either the development, robustness or resilience of structure in these soils (McGarry, 1996). Organic matter levels tend to be low in Vertisols; even as low as 10 g/ kg (Coulombe, Dixon and Wilding, 1996).

Parent material influences organic matter accumulation not only through its effect on soil texture. Soils developed from inherently rich material, such as basalt, are more fertile than soils formed from granitic material, which contains less mineral nutrients. Moreover, the former experience more organic matter accumulation because of abundant vegetative growth.


Organic matter accumulation is often favoured at the bottom of hills. There are two reasons for this accumulation: conditions are wetter than at mid- or upper-slope positions, and organic matter is transported to the lowest point in the landscape through runoff and erosion. Similarly, soil organic matter levels are higher on northfacing slopes (in the Northern Hemisphere) compared with south-facing slopes (and the other way around in the Southern Hemisphere) because temperatures are lower (Quideau, 2002).

Salinity and acidity

Salinity, toxicity and extremes in soil pH (acid or alkaline) result in poor biomass production and, thus in reduced additions of organic matter to the soil. For example, pH affects humus formation in two ways: decomposition, and biomass production. In strongly acid or highly alkaline soils, the growing conditions for micro-organisms are poor, resulting in low levels of biological oxidation of organic matter (Primavesi, 1984). Soil acidity also influences the availability of plant nutrients and thus regulates indirectly biomass production and the available food for soil biota. Fungi are less sensitive than bacteria to acid soil conditions.

Vegetation and biomass production

The rate of soil organic matter accumulation depends largely on the quantity and quality of organic matter input. Under tropical conditions, applications of readily degradable materials with low C:N ratios, such as green manure and leguminous cover crops, favour decomposition and a short-term increase in the labile nitrogen pool during the growing season. On the other hand, applications of plant materials with both large C:N ratios and lignin contents such as cereal straw and grasses (Figure 5) generally favour nutrient immobilization, organic matter accumulation and humus formation, with increased potential for improved soil structure development.

Plant constituents such as lignin and other polyphenols retard decomposition. In an experiment in southern Nigeria to compare management effects on soil organic matter accumulation, a three-year fallow with Guinea grass (Panicum maximum), which has a high lignin content, maintained a carbon level comparable to that under forest fallow. However, fallowing with leguminous species such as pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan) caused a significant decline in soil total C (Juo and Lal, 1977).

Palm and Sanchez (1990) reported that both the decomposition rate and the N-release patterns of three tropical legumes (Inga edulis, Cajanus cajan, and Erythrina spp.) were related to the amount of polyphenol compounds such as lignin in the leaf. Erythrina leaves had the lowest concentrations of polyphenols and the fastest decomposition rate of the three species studied.

Root turnover also constitutes an important addition of humus into the soil, and consequently it is important for carbon sequestration. In forests, most organic matter is added as superficial litter. However, in grassland ecosystems, up to two-thirds of organic matter is added through the decay of roots (Quideau, 2002).

Composition of leaves and roots of leguminous and grass species

Source: Primavesi, 1984

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