Nitrogen Cycling in Leucaena Alley Cropping

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Saffigna, P.G.
Myers, R.J.K.
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Chapman, A.L.
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Field experiments were conducted on an Alfisol in the semi-arid tropics of northern Australia to investigate nitrogen (N) cycling in the leucaena (Leucaena leucocephala) alley cropping system. This is a farming system in which maize (Zea mays L.) is grown in alleys formed by leucaena hedgerows spaced 4.5 metres apart. Mineralization of N from Ieucaena (prunings) and maize residues was studied under field conditions. Response of maize growth to addition of N fertilizer and plant residues was evaluated both in field plot and microplot experiments. The fate of fertilizer N and leucaena N was examined over four consecutive seasons. The decomposition (loss of mass) of dry, cut 15N-labelled leucaena residues differed from that of intact fresh leucaena prunings in the first cropping season although no difference was detected after one year. At the end of one cropping season, 3 months after application, 58-72% of 15N-labelled leucaena had decomposed compared to only 34-36% of fresh leucaena prunings. Similar trends occurred at 20 and 52 days after application. The extent of decomposition of fresh leucaena prunings (28-33%) was similar at two loading rates (2.4 and 4.7 t DM ha -1) by 3 months after addition. About 72% of young 15N labled maize residues was decomposed by 3 months after addition in the presence of fresh leucaena prunings. Decomposition of 15N-labelled leucaena residues and unlabelled fresh prunings was 91% and 88% respectively 14 months after addition. After 2 years the corresponding values were 96% and 94%. When N content of the recovered residues was taken into account, the values were 95% and 94% after 14 months, and the same (97%) after 2 years. Maize yield and N uptake were significantly increased following addition of either unlabelled fresh leucaena residues or 15N-labelled thy Ieucaena residues. Application of N ferilizer produced a thither increase in the presence of the residues. The maize yield and N uptake with the 15N-labelled leucaena were not different from those with the unlabelled residues. There was a significant positive interaction between N fertilizer and leucaena prunings which increased maize production. Addition of maize residues decreased the yield and N uptake of maize compared with that obtained in the presence of N fertilizer at 40 kg N ha~1 and leucaena residues (2.4 t DM ha-1). There was a marked residual benefit of N fertilizer applied in the first season at 36 kgN hat in the presence of leucaena prunings on the second maize crop yield and N uptake, but not on the third crop. However, a significant residual benefit of leucaena prunings added in the first season was found in DM yield and N uptake of the second and third maize crop. The short-term fate of 15N applied in plant residues was examined during two separate cropping seasons. By 20 days after application of separate 15N-labelled leucaena leaves, stems and petioles, 3-9% of the added 15N could be found in maize plants, 33-49% was in surface residues, 36-48% in the 2 m soil proffle and 0.3-22% unaccounted for. In a separate experiment when leucaena components were not separated, 5% of 15N applied in leucaena residues was taken up by maize 52 days after addition, 45% was in residues, 25% was in soil and 25% was unaccounted for. Jn another experiment, maize recovered 6% of added leucaena 15N after 2 months, 39% remained in residues, 28% was in soil and 27% was not recovered. Incorporation of 15N-labelled leucaena residues in the soil did not increase recoveiy of leucaena 15N by maize compared with placement of the residues on the soil surface. By the end of one cropping season (3 months after application), 9% of added 15N was recovered by maize from 15N-labelled leucaena. There was a similar 15N recoveiy from 15N-labelled maize residues applied as mulch at 1.7 t DM ha1 together with unlabelled leucaena prunings at 2.4 t DM ha ~. In both cases, 30-32% of added 15N was detected in soil, 28% in residues, and 31-34% apparently lost. The short-term fate of fertilizer 15N was different from that of 15N added in plant residues. In a 52-day experiment, maize recovered 65-79% of fertilizer 15N applied at low rates (6.1 and 12.2 kg N ha -1) in the presence of leucaena prunings, 21-34% was present in soil, and less than 1% was not recovered. By 2 months after application, recoveiy of fertilizer 15N by maize was 41% from N fertilizer added at 80 kg N ha -1, 35% from N fertilizer at 40 kg N ha -1 in the presence of leucaena prunings, and 24% from N fertilizer at 40 kg N ha -1 in the presence of maize residues and leucaena prunings. The corresponding deficits (unaccounted-for 15N) were 37%, 38% and 47% respectively. A small but significant amount of the fertilizer 15N was present in the unlabelled leucaena residues (3%) and in the mixture of unlabelled leucaena and maize residues (7%) present on the soil surface. However, application of the plant residues did not affect recoveiy of the fertilizer 15N in soil (21-24%). When N fertilizer was applied at 40 kg N hi1 in the presence of leucaena prunings, 43% of fertilizer 15N was recovered by maize at the end of cropping season, 20% in soil, 2% in residues, and 35% unaccounted for. The long-term fate of fertilizer 15N was compared with that of leucaena 15N in an experiment over four cropping seasons. In the first season, maize tops recovered 50% of the fertilizer 15N but only 4% of the leucaena 15N. In the second, third and fourth seasons, maize (tops + roots) recovered 0.7%, 0.4% and 0.3% of the initial fertilizer 15N compared with 2.6%, 1.8% and 1.4% of the initial leucaena 15N. In the second, third and fourth seasons, recovery of the initial fertilizer 15N (12-14%) in soil was much lower than that of the initial leucaena 15N (38-40%). There was no further loss of the fertilizer 15N after the first season. However, the cumulative 15N deficit for the leucaena 1N in the first two seasons was 50%--thissuggested an additional loss of 23% since the end of the first season. There was no further loss of 15N from either residual fertilizer 15N or residual leucaena 15N in the third and fourth seasons. In conclusion, application of leucaena prunings could substantially increase maize yield and N uptake although some supplementary N fertilizer may be required to achieve maximum crop yield. Maize recovered only a small amount of added leucaena N in the first year. Most of the leucaena residue N was present in the soil and remaining residues after one season. This residue N would be gradually available for plant uptake by subsequent crops. Of course, annual additions of leucaena prunings would appreciably increase the pool of available N over time. Thus, application of leucaena prunings could substantially improve soil fertility in the long term.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)
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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Division of Australian Environmental Studies
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Nitrogen cycling
Zea mays L.
Maize yield
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