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Soil Nitrogen and Nitrogen-Use Efficiency under Long-Term No-till Practice

Dalal, Ram C., Wang, Weijin, Allen, Diane E., Reeves, Steven, Menzies, Neal W.
Soil Science Society of America journal 2011 v.75 no.6 pp. 2251-2261
Hordeum vulgare, Triticum aestivum, Vertisols, barley, biomass, crop residue management, crop residues, cropland, cropping systems, crops, disturbed soils, ecosystems, fertilizer rates, field experimentation, grasslands, land use change, nitrogen, nitrogen content, nitrogen fertilizers, no-tillage, nutrient use efficiency, nutrients, soil organic carbon, soil profiles, sustainable agriculture, wheat
Land-use change from perennial grasslands to cultivated croplands leads to reduced soil organic C (SOC) and total N. Among other factors, introduction of annual crops and soil disturbance by tillage may account for reduced amounts of SOC and total N. However, agricultural practices of no-till and N fertilizer application may maintain soil N in cropped soils. We measured soil N changes and N-use efficiency in a field experiment initiated in 1968, consisting of completely randomized tillage practices (conventional mechanical till [CT], and no-till [NT]), crop residue management (residue burned [RB], and residue retained [RR]), and N fertilization (0, 30, and 90 kg N ha⁻¹) on a Vertisol (Ustic Pellusert) over 40 yr. Crops grown were mainly wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) except for five barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) crops early in the experiment. Significant effects of treatments on soil total N were primarily confined to the top 0.1-m depth. Soil total N exponentially declined in all treatments even though apparent fertilizer N recoveries during this period (1969–2008) were only 46 and 59% of N applied at 90 and 30 kg N ha⁻¹, respectively. Mineral N in the soil profile (0–1.2 m) ranged from 68 to 496 kg N ha⁻¹. Nitrogen-use efficiency was similar (P = 0.13) under CT and NT in this Vertisol. However, crop residue retention and a low rate of N application had greater N-use efficiency (35–40%) than RB and a high rate of N application (21–25%) under the annual cereal grain cropping system. If perennial grasslands are considered ecological benchmarks for agricultural sustainability, primarily through large root biomass that utilizes water and nutrients efficiently, then the challenge remains to develop cropping systems that successfully mimic grassland ecosystems.