Comparative effects of sugarcane monoculture on soil organic matter status and soil biological activity.
The effects of increasing periods under sugarcane monoculture (managed by preharvest burning) on soil organic matter content and related soil properties were investigated in the 0 to 10 cm layer of a sandy coastal Ochric Cambisol (Glenrosa soils) and a red Rhodic Ferralsol (Hutton soil) from the sugar belt of KwaZulu-Natal. The organic C content at both sites under undisturbed vegetation is about 48 g C kg-I. This declined exponentially with increasing years under sugarcane. For the Glenrosa site, organic C reached a new equilibrium level of about 20 g kg-I while at the Hutton soil the equivalent value was 41 g kg-I. The higher organic matter content maintained at the Hutton site was attributed mainly to clay protection of organic matter since the clay content of the Hutton soil was 61 % compared to the 18 % for the Glenrosa soil. The loss of soil organic matter under sugarcane resulted in a concomitant decline in soil microbial biomass C, microbial quotient, basal respiration, aggregate stability, arylsulphatase and acid phosphatase activity. The activities of arylsulphatase and acid phosphatase like those for concentrations of microbial biomass and organic C, were higher for the Hutton than Glenrosa soils. At the Glenrosa site, the natural OBC abundance in soils was used to calculate the loss offorest-derived, native soil C and the concomitant input of sugarcane-derived C. Sugarcane-derived C increased over time until it accounted for about 61 % of organic C in the surface 10 cm in soils that had been under sugarcane for greater than 50 years. The effects of agricultural land use (including burnt sugarcane) on organic matter content and related soil properties were compared with those under undisturbed native grassland in KwaZulu-Natal. Two separate farms situated on Oxisols were used and both contained fields with continuous long-term (>20 years) cropping histories. At site 1, soil organic C content in the surface 10 cm followed the order permanent kikuyu pasture> annual ryegrass pasture> native grassland> preharvest burnt sugarcane > maize under conventional tillage (CT). At site 2, organic C in the surface 20 cm decreased in the general order kikuyu pasture> native grassland > annual ryegrass pasture> maize under zero tillage (ZT) ~ maize (CT). Organic C, microbial biomass C, microbial quotient, basal respiration and aggregate stability were substantially greater in the surface 5 cm under maize ZT than maize CT. In the undisturbed sites (eg native grassland and kikuyu pasture) the metabolic quotient increased with depth. By contrast under maize CT and sugarcane there was no significant stratification of organic C, yet there was a sharp decrease in metabolic quotient with depth. Aggregate stability was high under both native grassland and kikuyu pasture and it remained high to 40 cm depth under the deep-rooted kikuyu pasture. Although soil organic C was similar under maize CT and sugarcane, values for microbial biomass C, microbial quotient, basal respiration and aggregate stability were lower, and those for metabolic quotient and bulk density were higher, under sugarcane. This was attributed to the fallow nature of the soil in the interrows of sugarcane fields. It was concluded that the loss of soil organic matter, microbial activity and aggregate stability is potentially problematic under maize CT and sugarcane and measures to improve organic matter status should be considered. For sugarcane, this could include green cane harvesting and the use of green manure crops in rotation.