Due to the scarcity of arable land, semiarid rangelands are often converted to irrigated croplands, which is likely to affect soil organic carbon (SOC) due to changes in C inputs into the soil and environmental factors regulating decomposition. In this study, soil density and particle size fractions as well as their C and N contents, stable isotopic composition, and chemical characterization by mid-infrared spectroscopy were measured in a native shrubland and an adjacent agricultural site under alfalfa cultivation for at least 50 years in western Nevada. Cultivation significantly reduced the amount of C and N in the surface soils and the proportion of C present in the labile fractions. The δ13
C and δ15
N values of the SOC reflected dominant vegetation types at each site, and suggested most SOC was root-derived. The potential decomposition rate of SOC was higher in the shrubland than in the alfalfa surface soil reflecting the larger amount of labile C present in the shrubland soils. Spectroscopy results suggested that the greater recalcitrance of the alfalfa soils was due to insoluble SOC moieties. Additional analyses of buried, SOC-rich, A horizons at both sites showed that slower decomposition of ‘deep’ SOC was due to lower substrate quality supported by fractionation and spectroscopy data. The results of this study showed that converting a semiarid shrubland into irrigated cropland significantly reduced SOC content but increased overall stability of residual SOC.
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