The effect of various crop residue management practices under sugarcane production on soil quality.
This study examined the influence of different management practices under sugarcane production on soil chemical, biological and physical properties on a long-term (59yr) field experiment in KwaZulu-Natal. These management practices included conventional post-harvest burning of crop residues, with the tops either left on the soil surface or with tops removed, and green cane harvesting with the retention of crop residues on the soil surface as a trash blanket. Each of these treatments were either fertilized or did not receive fertilizer. The data collected was used to evaluate the effect of crop residue management on soil quality under sugarcane production. Soil organic matter content increased from 39 g C kg¯¹ soil, under conventional burning to 55 g C kg¯¹ soil in the surface 10 cm under green cane harvesting where crop residues are returned to the soil. It also resulted in greater recycling of nutrients and increases in exchangeable K and Ca and extractable P. Fertilizer application resulted in a build-up of soil nutrients in combination with trash retention. Fertilizer application induced increases in exchangeable P and also some accumulation in soil organic P. Exchangeable and non-exchangeable K concentrations were also higher in fertilized than non-fertilized treatments. However, nitrogen fertilizer application and, to a lesser degree, organic matter mineralization, resulted in soil acidification to a depth of 30 cm. Acidification in the fertilized treatments resulted in a concomitant increase in exchangeable acidity and exchangeable Al, due to the increase in H⁺ ions and solubilized Al species on exchange sites. Base cations moved into soil solution and were leaching to lower soil layers. The decrease in soil pH resulted in the surface charge conferred on the variable charge surfaces on soil colloids becoming less negative and as a result there was a decrease in ECEC. Acidification in fertilized treatment not only increased exchangeable Al but also the buffering reserve of non-exchangeable al; both that complexed with soil organic matter (CuCl₂- extractable) and that present as hydroxy - Al associated with mineral colloids (ammonium acetate - extractable). The increased organic matter content under trash retention resulted in an increase in ECEC. This enabled the soil to retain greater amounts of Ca²⁺, Mg²⁺ and K⁺ which were returned to the soil in the trash. Both residue retention and fertilizer application had a positive effect on the microbial biomass C and N and the microbial quotient increased from 0.39% to 0.86% as organic C increased from 39 g C kg¯¹ soil under burnt treatments to 55 g C kg¯¹ soil under trashed, fertilized treatments. This increase was associated with increased concentrations of labile organic material (K₂S0₄₋extractable) present as well as increased amounts of nutrients being cycled through the plant-soil system. The light fraction organic matter also increased with increasing returns of organic residues. However, the large active microbial biomass under the trashed, fertilized treatment resulted in an increased turnover rate of this fraction and consequently resulted in lower LF dry matter, C and N than in the unfertilized treatment. Aggregate stability increased with increasing amounts of organic material returned due to trash retention. Nevertheless, fertilized treatments induced a lower aggregate stability than unfertilized ones, despite the tendancy for the latter to have higher organic C and microbial biomass values. This was attributed to an increase in the proportion of exchangeable cations present in monovalent form (due to application of fertilizer K and leaching of Ca and Mg) favouring dispersion and a decline in aggregate stability. Green cane harvesting resulted in an increase in microbial activity (basal respiration, FDA hydrolytic activity, arginine ammonification rate and dehydrogenase activity) and in the activity of specific soil enzymes involved in turnover of C, N, P and S to a depth of 30 cm. Increased activities of these enzymes reflect a higher rate of turnover of C, N, P and S. The metabolic quotient decreased with increasing residue return, indicating a more metabolically efficient microbial community. Fertilizer application resulted in a variable effect on enzyme activity. Long-term fertilizer application resulted in an increase in invertase and acid phosphatase, a decrease in L-histidase and arylsulphatase and had little effect on protease and alkaline phosphatase. These variable effects were explained in terms of an interaction between fertilizer - induced increases in Corg and soil nutrient status and fertilizer - induced soil acidification. The size and activity of the soil microbial biomass was studied in the plant row and in the inter-row of a sugarcane field under burning or green cane harvesting. Soils were sampled to 30 cm depth in (i) the centre of the plant row, (ii) 30 cm out from the row centre and (iii) 60 cm out from the row centre (i.e. the middle of the inter-row area). Under burning, the only substantial input of organic matter to the soil was from root turnover in the row area where the root biomass was concentrated. As a consequence, the size (microbial biomass C) and activity (basal respiration of the soil microbial community were concentrated in the row. However, under green cane harvesting there was a large input of organic matter in the inter-row area in the form of the trash blanket itself and through turnover of crop roots that were concentrated in the surface 10 cm of the soil below the blanket. As a result, soil microbial activity was considerably higher in the interrow area under green cane harvesting than under burning. Phospholipids are essential membrane components of microorganisms and a good correlation was found between the total PLFA's extracted from soils and the microbial biomass C, indicating that phospholipids are an accurate measurement of living biomass. Mutivariate statistical analysis (PCA) was used to separate different PLFA profiles under burning versus trash retention and under different land uses (sugarcane, maize, annual and perennial pasture and undisturbed veld). Soil organic matter content contributed the greatest variance in the data along the first axis. That is increasing soil organic matter return not only increased the size of the microbial biomass, but also affected the composition of the microbial community. There was a shift in the different sub-fractions under different management practices. MUFA's are general biomarkers of Gram negative bacteria and were found to be a sensitive indicator of higher substrate availability (i.e they increased under green cane harvesting). Fungal biomarkers indicated an increased fungal biomass associated with surface application of residues. Soil physical conditions were considered to be a contributing factor to the shift in microbial community structure. Increased organic matter content improved soil physical conditions and preferentially stimulated the growth of aerobic microorganisms. In addition to this, the proportion of SATFA (gram positive bacteria) was found to increase in response to burning. This increase was attributed to the survival mechanisms of these microorganisms (i.e. endospore formation). It was found that the conversion from burning to trash management changes the composition of the soil microbial community. The effect of management practices on soil functional diversity was also evaluated using two methods (i.e. Biolog plates and substrate induced respiration (SIR)). Biolog plates are a selective technique that stimulate growth of a small proportion of the soil microbial community whereas the SIR technique measures the activity of the metabolically active microbial community in situ. As a result the SIR method separated treatments more effectively than Biolog plates (i.e. annually tilled treatments, permanent grassland sites and fertilized and unfertilized treatments). The quantity and the quality of organic C supply influenced the catabolic diversity. Conversion from burning to green cane harvesting greatly increased catabolic evenness and richness and therefore presumably also tended to increase the resilience of the soil to stress and disturbance particularly in relation to decomposition functions. It was concluded that conversion from preharvest burning to green cane harvesting results in an increase in soil organic matter content, an improvement in soil structure and soil nutrient status, an increase in the size, activity, taxonomic and functional diversity of the soil microbial community. The practice should therefore be promoted to the South African sugar industry.