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Legacy effects of long-term nitrogen fertilizer application on the fate of nitrogen fertilizer inputs in continuous maize

Hanna J. Poffenbarger, John E. Sawyer, Daniel W. Barker, Daniel C. Olk, Johan Six, Michael J. Castellano
Agriculture, ecosystems & environment 2018 v.265 no. pp. 544-555
Zea mays, carbon sequestration, corn, crop residues, crop yield, cropping systems, fertilizer application, growing season, nitrogen fertilizers, particulate organic matter, soil nutrient dynamics, soil organic carbon, topsoil, Iowa
Nitrogen fertilizer management can impact soil organic C (SOC) stocks in cereal-based cropping systems by regulating crop residue inputs and decomposition rates. However, the impact of long-term N fertilizer management, and associated changes in SOC quantity and quality, on the fate of N fertilizer inputs is uncertain. Using two 15-year N fertilizer rate experiments on continuous maize (Zea mays L.) in Iowa, which have generated gradients of SOC, we evaluated the legacy effects of N fertilizer inputs on the fate of added N. Across the historical N fertilizer rates, which ranged from 0 to 269 kg N ha−1 yr−1, we applied isotopically-labeled N fertilizer at the empirically-determined site-specific agronomic optimum rate (202 kg N ha−1 at the central location and 269 kg N ha−1 at the southern location) and measured fertilizer recovery in crop and soil pools, and, by difference, environmental losses. Crop fertilizer N recovery efficiency (NREcrop) at physiological maturity averaged 44% and 14% of applied N in central Iowa and southern Iowa, respectively (88 kg N ha−1 and 37 kg N ha−1, respectively). Despite these large differences in NREcrop, the response to historical N rate was remarkably similar across both locations: NREcrop was greatest at low and high historical N rates, and least at the intermediate rates. Decreasing NREcrop from low to intermediate historical N rates corresponded to a decline in early-season fertilizer N recovery in the relatively slow turnover topsoil mineral-associated organic matter pool (0–15 cm), while increasing NREcrop from intermediate to high historical N rates corresponded to an increase in early-season fertilizer N recovery in the relatively fast turnover topsoil particulate organic matter pool and an increase in crop yield potential. Despite the variation in NREcrop along the historical N rate gradient, we did not detect an effect of historical N rate on environmental losses during the growing season, which averaged 34% and 69% of fertilizer N inputs at the central and southern locations, respectively (69 kg N ha−1 and 185 kg N ha−1, respectively). Our results suggest that, while beneficial for SOC storage over the long term, fertilizing at the agronomic optimum N rate can lead to significant environmental N losses.