Nitrogen fertilizer suppresses mineralization of soil organic matter in maize agroecosystems

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Abstract

The possibility that N fertilizer increases soil organic matter (SOM) mineralization and, as a result, reduces SOM stocks has led to a great debate about the long-term sustainability of maize-based agroecosystems as well as the best method to estimate fertilizer N use efficiency (FNUE). Much of this debate is because synthetic N fertilizer can positively or negatively affect SOM mineralization via several direct and indirect pathways. Here, we test a series of hypotheses to determine the direction, magnitude, and mechanism of N fertilizer effect on SOM mineralization and discuss the implications for methods to estimate FNUE. We measured the effect of synthetic N fertilizer on SOM mineralization via gross ammonification at two long-term experiments in central and southern Iowa, USA with replicated plots of continuous maize that received one of three "historical" N fertilizer rates (zero, moderate or high) from 1999 to 2014. In 2015, prior to our measurements, we split the historical N fertilizer rate plots into two subplots that received either the site-specific agronomic optimum N rate or zero N fertilizer. At the onset of rapid maize N uptake, N fertilizer reduced gross ammonification by 13-21% (2-5 kg NH 4 -N ha -1 d -1 ). A companion laboratory experiment rejected the hypothesis that differences in net primary productivity between fertilized and unfertilized treatments explained the negative effect of N fertilizer on SOM mineralization. Moreover, the NH4+ pool size was negatively correlated with the gross ammonification rate (r 2 = 0.85, p < 0.001). Thus, we conclude that NH4+-N fertilizer had a direct suppressive effect on SOM mineralization. These results demonstrate that the direct effect of N fertilizer on microbial activity can exceed the indirect effects of N fertilizer via large changes in NPP that alter organic matter inputs, soil temperature and moisture content. The magnitude of this effect and specificity to NH4+-N has significant implications for fertilizer management as well as the measurement and modeling of agroecosystem N dynamics including FNUE.

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Mahal, N. K., Osterholz, W. R., Miguez, F. E., Poffenbarger, H. J., Sawyer, J. E., Olk, D. C., … Castellano, M. J. (2019). Nitrogen fertilizer suppresses mineralization of soil organic matter in maize agroecosystems. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 7(MAR). https://doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2019.00059

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