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Yield response of crops amended with sewage sludge in the field is more affected by sludge properties than by final soil metal concentration

DeBrouwere, K., Smolders, E.
European journal of soil science 2006 v.57 no.6 pp. 858-867
chemical concentration, uptake mechanisms, barley, liming, heavy metals, sewage sludge, soil quality, wheat, soil amendments, soil, corn, grain yield, field experimentation, nitrogen fertilizers, Belgium
Adverse effects on crop yield or quality have been reported in sewage-sludge treated soils at soil total metal concentrations below those of the current EU directives. A field trial was set up in Belgium (2002-2004) to assess crop response to the application of sewage sludge below these soil thresholds but with sludge metal concentrations either above (high-metal) or below (low-metal) sludge metal limits. Two lime-stabilized and two raw, dewatered sludges were applied annually at rates of 10, 25 and 50 t dry matter (dm) ha⁻¹ for 3 years with four rates of N-fertilizer as a reference. Final soil metal concentrations increased to maximums of 1.6 mg Cd kg⁻¹ and 225 mg Zn kg⁻¹ through sludge applications. Maize yield was marginally affected by treatments in year 1, whereas wheat and barley grain yields in subsequent years increased up to threefold with increasing sludge or fertilizer rates and were mainly explained by grain-N. However, the grain yield of winter wheat in year 2 was reduced by about 14% in lime-stabilized high-metal sludge treatments compared with wheat receiving N-fertilizer at equivalent grain-N. Wheat grain and straw analysis showed no nutrient deficiencies but Zn concentrations in grain and straw were greater than in N-fertilizer and lime-stabilized, low-metal sludge treatments, suggesting Zn toxicity. Sludge properties other than Cd concentration (e.g. electrical conductivity) affected crop Cd in the first year (maize), whereas significant correlations between Cd application and wheat grain Cd were found in the second year. Wheat grain Cd concentrations reached the international trade guideline of 0.1 mg Cd kg⁻¹ fresh weight in the plots amended with lime-treated, high-metal sludge even though soil Cd remained below EU limits. In the third year, barley grain Cd remained largely below EU limits. We discuss the possibility that sludge properties rather than soil total metal concentrations are related to effects on crops in the initial years after sludge applications. In none of the 3 years were any adverse effects on crops found for sludge meeting current EU regulations.