Effects of compost, cover crops, and local conditions on degradation of two agricultural mulches in soil

M. B. Samuelson, E. V. Reid, R. Drijber, E. Jeske, H. Blanco-Canqui, M. Mamo, I. Kadoma, S. E. Wortman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Biobased and biodegradable mulches (BDM) are a potentially sustainable alternative to polyethylene plastic mulch because they can be tilled into the soil at the end of the growing season. However, their degradation rate in the soil is uncertain, limiting their on-farm adoption. The objective of this study was to determine whether organic soil management practices could be leveraged to speed degradation of two potentially BDM across two diverse agroecoregions [Lincoln (LNK) and Scottsbluff (SBF), NE, USA]. Management treatments included compost, compost extract, cover crops, all three of these practices combined and a control. The two mulch types studied were a nonwoven polylactic acid fabric with embedded wood particles (PLA), and a starch-polyester mulch film (BLK). Mulches were applied in spring 2017 for vegetable production and removed in fall after harvest. Recovered mulch was sectioned into squares 10 cm2 and buried in mesh bags for 22 months. Mulch degradation, and soil chemical, physical and biological properties were measured at four times over 2 years. Management treatments applied seasonally across 2 years led to expected changes in soil properties, yet they had no effect on mulch degradation. Instead, mulch degradation was driven by the interaction of location and mulch type. The BLK mulch had degraded by 98% at LNK after 12 months, but only by half after 22 months at SBF. Degradation of PLA after 22 months was similar between locations with 29 ± 4% mulch mass remaining at SBF and 33 ± 4% remaining at LNK. Climate and soil characteristics at each location were strong determinants of mulch degradation. Specifically, soils at LNK were finer textured, lower in pH, higher in soil water content, organic matter and nitrates, and with greater bacterial abundance compared to SBF. The strong location by mulch type interaction observed could inform the development of regionally specific predictive models of degradation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)128-141
Number of pages14
JournalRenewable Agriculture and Food Systems
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 10 2022


  • Biodegradation
  • biomulch
  • organic agriculture
  • plastic pollution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Food Science
  • Agronomy and Crop Science


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