A comparison of the effects of tillage on soil physical properties and microbial acitivity at different levels of nitrogen fertilizer at Gourton Farm, Loskop, KwaZulu-Natal.
Bassett, Terri Storm.
MetadataShow full item record
Long-term food security and environmental quality are closely linked to maintaining soil quality. Therefore, the assessment of the effect of agricultural management practices on soil chemical, physical and biological parameters provide fundamental information about sustainability. An agricultural management practice which has received much attention in the last decade is tillage. The loss of topsoil due to erosion and a reduction of soil organic matter under conventional tillage practices, together with escalating fuel prices, have lead to the increased implementation of conservation tillage practices. However, the response of soil to a reduction in tillage is dependent on the inherent soil properties, environmental conditions, crop type and the land management practices. The successful implementation of conservation tillage practices is thus site specific. Furthermore, the effect of fertilizer application on soil quality is affected by tillage regime and therefore has important implications for recommendations of fertilizer application rates. The objectives of this study were to investigate the effect of tillage regime at three rates of nitrogen fertilization on soil microbial activity and selected soil physical properties in the Loskop area of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Based on the outcomes of these investigations, recommendations regarding sustainable tillage practice and nitrogen fertilizer application rate are made. A field trial was initiated in 2003 on Gourton Farm in the Loskop area of KwaZulu-Natal on an area that was previously under annual conventional tillage and is currently planted to dry-land maize. The trial was arranged as a split plot experimental design with tillage regime (whole plots) replicated three times, and fertilizer type and application rate forming randomized subplots within the whole plots. The trial was on a clay loam soil type (Hutton soil form). The effects of annual conventional tillage (CT1) and no-till (NT) at three rates of nitrogen (N) fertilizer (as limestone ammonium nitrate (LAN)) applied at rates of 0 kg N ha-1 annum-1 (0N), 100 kg N ha-1 annum-1 (100N) and 200 kg N ha-1 annum-1 (200N) were evaluated for their effects on soil organic carbon (SOC), microbial activity, bulk density (ñb), water retention characteristics, saturated hydraulic conductivity (Ks), micro-aggregate stability and soil penetration resistance. Undisturbed soil cores were taken from three inter-rows in triplicate from each sub-plot for the A horizon (0 to 20 cm) and from three inter-rows in duplicate for the B horizon (20 to 40 cm). These undisturbed soil cores were used to determine the ñb, water retention characteristics and Ks. Bulk soil samples were collected from three inter-rows in triplicate from each sub-plot for the A (0 to 20 cm) and B (20 to 40 cm) horizons. The bulk samples from each horizon in each sub-plot were thoroughly mixed and halved. One half was used to determine microbial activity as measured by the hydrolytic and cellulolytic activity and the other half was used to determine SOC content, particle size distribution and aggregate stability. Penetration resistance was taken in duplicate in three rows in each sub-plot at 1 cm increments to a depth of 50 cm or until an instrument limiting penetration resistance of 5000 kPa was reached. Tillage regime and N application rate considerably affected soil microbial and physical properties in the A horizon (0 to 20 cm). The SOC, hydrolytic activity and ñb are significantly greater (P 0.05) effect on the soil microbial activity and physical properties except for Ks, where the Ks is significantly (P 0.05) in the B horizon on the measured soil microbial activity and physical properties except for the penetration resistance. Increasing levels of fertilizer resulted in increased penetration resistance throughout the soil profile under NT. Under CT1, this same trend is evident from below the plough layer. These results indicate that the microbial activity, as measured by hydrolytic and cellulolytic activity, is improved under NT compared to CT1. Furthermore, the soil under NT retains more plant available water (PAW) and although the ñb and penetration resistance are greater there was no obvious adverse effect on maize growth. In addition, a high rate of LAN fertilizer adversely affected soil microbial and physical properties, especially under NT. Therefore, it is proposed that NT is the preferred tillage practice in providing long-term sustainability and soil health without causing negative soil structural properties for crop productivity in the short-term. In addition, it is recommended that although increased levels of nitrogen fertilizer results in higher yielding maize plants it is unsustainable to apply high applications of LAN due to the negative effect on the soil microbial and physical properties and thus there is a need to re-evaluate the sustainability of using high rates of LAN to increase crop yields, especially under NT systems.