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Impact of long-term N fertilisation on CO2 evolution from old and young SOM pools measured during the maize cropping season

Shahbaz, Muhammad, Menichetti, Lorenzo, Kätterer, Thomas, Börjesson, Gunnar
The Science of the total environment 2019 v.658 pp. 1539-1548
C3 plants, Zea mays, biodegradation, carbon, carbon dioxide, carbon dioxide production, corn, fallow, fertilizer application, field experimentation, nitrogen, nitrogen fertilizers, roots, soil, soil nutrients, soil organic matter, soil respiration, sowing, stable isotopes, temperate zones, Sweden
The relationship between carbon (C) inputs and nitrogen (N) fertilisation is a key element of soil organic matter (SOM) dynamics, which remains poorly resolved. In temperate climates, it is critical to investigate the interactive effect of C and N inputs on SOM stabilisation under low or high substrate availability. We measured SOM content and in situ soil respiration in a long-term field experiment in Sweden, which started in 1956. In 2000, the previous C3 crops were replaced with C4 maize, making it possible to trace old- (C3-derived) and young-C (C4-derived) sources in CO2 and SOM under bare fallow, maize cropped with or without N-fertilisation (root C-inputs). Soil respiration and its isotopic composition were measured in the field prior to sowing, every second week during crop growth and once after harvest. During 1956–1999, the bare fallow lost 38% of its SOM, following an exponential decay trend. Despite root C inputs, total SOM content under C3 crops declined from 1.5% in 1956 to 1.4% and 1.2% C in fertilised and unfertilised treatments, respectively, in 1999. After the crop change in 2000, estimated C input increased by 5% (under fertilisation), but SOM content continued to decline (as before 2000), to 1.25% (fertilised) and 1.03% (unfertilised) in 2017. Analysis of δ13C revealed that 9 and 11% of young-C was retained in unfertilised and fertilised SOM, respectively. However, up to 70% of soil respiration derived from young-C. Comparing the contributions of old- and young-C to CO2 and SOM showed that, irrespective to the time of measurement, young-C was always more available for microbial decomposition than old-C, particularly under fertilisation. We conclude that the amount of C entering the soil through root inputs was insufficient to counterbalance SOM losses over time. Moreover, soil nutrient status and recent root-C availability appear to be important for CO2 release, and must be considered in further recommendations on maintaining/improving SOM stocks.