- Open Access
Effect of different fertilization managements on nitrate accumulation in a Mollisol of Northeast China
© Yan et al. 2016
Received: 16 September 2015
Accepted: 18 April 2016
Published: 27 May 2016
In a continuous spring maize system in Northeast China, the accumulation and succession characteristics of nitrate in Mollisol with four fertilization treatments, including no fertilization (CK), farmers’ conventional fertilization (FC), recommendation fertilization (RF), and controlled release fertilizer application (CRF), were compared over a 6-year field plot trial.
On average, the RF and CRF treatments decreased nitrate nitrogen by 16.6 and 39.5 % in the 0–90 cm soil layer, respectively, and maintained a relatively high maize grain yield, as compared to the FC treatment. The accumulation of nitrate nitrogen was more obvious in the CRF treatment compared with the other fertilizer treatments under the arid climate. However, the high precipitation resulted in the leaching of nitrate nitrogen into the deeper soil layer in all the fertilizer treatments. The maximum of nitrate nitrogen in the 0–90 cm soil layer was 81.4 kg N/ha at a nitrogen fertilizer rate of 250 kg N/ha in the long-term trial, which was within the rational and safe level for groundwater.
The best fertilization strategy to decrease nitrate accumulation in soil should consider both soil characteristics and precipitation.
Maize is a major cereal crop worldwide and accounts for over 35 % of global food production. China, as one of the golden maize belts in the world, is the second largest maize-producing country, with a total growing area of 3.05 × 107 ha recorded in 2009 , which was mainly concentrated in North, Northeast, and Southwest China . The spring maize zone of Northeast China is one of the most important areas of food production in China, and maize yield from this region has reached 35 % of the total maize production in China [37, 39]. Nitrogen is one of the main plant nutrients and is essential for effective plant growth . Maize, as a high-yield crop, is frequently applied with amounts of N fertilizer. The contamination of surface and groundwater by nitrate accumulation in soil is a major environmental concern in China. The reason could be due to the excessive nitrogen fertilizer application, especially over the past two decades. In Northeast China, in 2012, 10.7 million hectares of land were cultivated with maize . The increasing application rate of N fertilizer had no discernible increase on yield parameters, which however resulted in substantial N volatilization and N residues in soils [15, 18, 29].
Loepez-Bellido et al.  reported that in a typical rain-fed area of southern Spain, the nitrate nitrogen residue in soil increased with time, accumulated mostly in the 30–60 cm soil layer, and additionally the average nitrate residue was 82, 88, 116 and 145 kg N/ha in the 0–90 cm soil layer at the N rates of 0, 50, 100 and 150 kg N/ha, respectively. Wang  analyzed more than 800 records in 120 papers published over the last 30 years concerning nitrate accumulation in soils in China and reported that this phenomenon peaked at 200 kg N/ha in 0–100 cm soil layer as the average for field crops such as maize, wheat, and rice in China and even 700 kg N/ha in vegetable crops. Kou et al.  noted that nitrate accumulation in the 0–90 cm soil layer was 221–275 kg N/ha for the wheat–maize rotation system in North China. However, Roth and Fox  reported that the residue of soil nitrate ranged from 41 to 138 kg N/ha in 0–120 cm after harvesting a maize crop which was fertilized by economic N rate.
Regarding ecosystems and from an ecological standpoint, the negative effects of nitrate residues can be reduced by studying the efficiency of N fertilizer in soil . On the basis of crop plants, N efficiency was affected by applying different N fertilizer rates and by adjusting the timing of fertilizer application [1, 45]. Gao et al.  reported that on average, the nitrogen application rate was 207 kg/ha in Northeast China, and 220 kg/ha in the central zone of Jilin Province in the continuous spring maize system in 2008; furthermore, the phenomenon of excessive nitrogen application (N >240 kg/ha) reached 40 %. Over-application of N fertilizer has become a common practice in maize production systems and has led to nutrient imbalances and inefficient fertilizer applications, and has resulted in negatively impacting the environment [3, 15]. Soil testing has been developed as a means of improving fertilizer use efficiency in China. He et al.  conducted multiple-point field trials based on soil testing in North Central China and showed that soil test-based fertilizer recommendations could increase wheat and maize yield and improve fertilizer use efficiency. Furthermore, controlled release fertilizer technologies, by regulating the time of N release from fertilizers, has the potential to reduce leaching losses of nitrate in soil [14, 27, 30, 31]. Many studies have found that the application of controlled release N fertilizer significantly increased the NUE and yields of crops [11, 40]. Zhang et al.  reported that the yields of both rice and oilseed rape with applied CRU increased by 6.9 % each, even when the CRU rate was reduced by 20 % relative to common urea. Dinnes et al.  reported that splitting fertilization could reduce the losses of nitrates from crop plants. The European Union recommends that control should be exercised over the amount of fertilizer applied; however, they do not specify limits the safe amount of fertilizer applied depends on climatic conditions, the nitrogen absorption capacity of crops, the soil N content as well as the frequency and timing of the application .
Many studies have reported that excessive N input resulted in higher nitrate nitrogen residues in soil [4, 32]. However, information on nitrate accumulation in soil, based on reducing the nitrogen rate and controlled release fertilizer ensuring yield, is still scarce in Northeast China. Therefore, the objectives of this 6-year field research in Northeast China were to evaluate the effects of reduced nitrogen rate and controlled release fertilizer (1) on maize yield and N uptake, (2) on nitrate accumulation in soil, and (3) on nitrate movement in different soil profiles.
Site description and experimental design
The field trials were conducted from 2004 to 2009 in a Mollisol in Dehui (DH) city, Jilin Province, Northeast China (44°33′N, 125°43′E). The climate is characterized by a temperate continental monsoon. The contents of soil organic matter, total N, Olsen phosphorus (P), and available potassium (K) in the upper 30-cm soil layer were 34 g/kg, 2.62 g/kg, 41.3 mg/kg and 172.9 mg/kg, respectively. Nitrate nitrogen in the 0–90 cm soil layer was 38.2 mg/kg, while the pH was 7.4.
Fertilizer rate and fertilization information of different treatments
Soil sampling and analysis
In each plot, four cores with 0.9 m depth were pooled to obtain a representative soil sample, homogenized, and passed through a 0.5-mm-diameter sieve. The nitrate contents from three soil layers (0–30, 30–60 and 60–90 cm depths) in each year were determined by extraction using 1 M KCl at a 1:10 ratio (Continuous-Flow Analysis-AA3 analyzer, Seal, Germany).
Statistical analysis was conducted with mixed analysis of variance (SAS software 2004) at the 5 % significance level.
Yield and N uptake
Average yields of different treatments during 2004–2009
7.2 ± 1.0b
9.2 ± 0.8a
9.2 ± 0.5a
8.9 ± 0.9a
6.8 ± 1.4b
10.9 ± 0.5a
10.0 ± 0.5a
10.9 ± 0.5a
4.2 ± 0.8b
13.6 ± 0.7a
13.7 ± 0.7a
13.6 ± 0.9a
4.3 ± 0.4b
10.8 ± 0.9a
10.5 ± 0.8a
10.6 ± 0.9a
5.5 ± 0.6b
10.2 ± 1.6a
11.1 ± 0.8a
10.9 ± 0.6a
4.8 ± 0.8b
9.7 ± 0.6a
10.4 ± 0.8a
10.0 ± 0.5a
Nitrogen uptake of different treatments during 2004–2009
129.8 ± 28.5b
190.5 ± 60.1ab
178.8 ± 32.2ab
203.2 ± 30.1a
143.7 ± 24b
200.4 ± 42.3a
221.9 ± 23.3a
192.5 ± 24.5a
61.6 ± 9.0b
217.7 ± 20.8a
226.5 ± 11.8a
227.8 ± 18.2a
38.4 ± 8.8b
164.8 ± 33.4a
164.2 ± 5.1a
145.0 ± 10.4a
86.2 ± 11.5b
225.0 ± 19.3a
259.2 ± 19.3a
248.5 ± 25.9a
55.0 ± 12.0b
153.4 ± 17.6a
202.0 ± 34.9a
134.4 ± 9.7a
Analysis of variance (mean squares) of the soil nitrate content at harvesting, yield, and N uptake affected by years and fertilization managements
Yield (kg ha−1)
Y × T
N uptake (kg ha−1)
Y × T
Nitrate content (0–90 cm)(kg ha−1)
Y × T
Nitrate concentration in 0–90 cm soil layer
Nitrate changes of different treatments in soil profile
At the 30–60 cm soil layer, nitrate accumulation ranged from 0.96 kg N/ha (CK treatment in 2004) to 27.91 kg N/ha (FC treatment in 2008). Furthermore, soil nitrate levels increased significantly in 2008, which is possibly related to extensive water movement during heavy rainfall periods, causing more N to leach deeper into the soil layers.
At the 60–90 cm soil layer, nitrate accumulation had a direct proportionality with time, increasing in trend as the years increased.
In Northeast China, the use of single basal fertilization has increased in trend due to labor cost increasing exponentially [33, 34]; however, splitting fertilizer technology could increase the efficiency of fertilizer. Gao et al.  reported that in the maize belt in Jilin Province, plant areas of single fertilization already amounted to 62.5 % of the total planted areas. Controlled release fertilizer, as a new single fertilization, not only minimized labor costs in farming systems , maintained the levels of nutrients over a relatively longer period, and increased nitrogen use efficiency , but also significantly reduced the nitrate accumulation when compared with the traditional fertilizer (Urea). Consequently, this study has similar results to and concurs with several other studies performed previously [5, 38].
The excessive application of N fertilizer is a common practice for ensuring maximum yields in maize planting systems in Northeast China. But Miao et al.  reported that by increasing cumulative nitrate N amounts, the seed yields and percentages increased by N addition rapidly declined, and when the cumulative nitrate amount was over 250 N kg/ha, there was no significant yield increase. In this trial, reducing fertilization treatment (RF) could work in harmony with the demand of crop as well as decrease nitrate accumulation risks.
Some researches in China showed that the concentration of nitrate residues in the 0–90 cm soils increased significantly with nitrogen application rates [17, 44]. Malhi et al.  surmised that the concentration of nitrate residue in soils was boosted by nitrogen application and could leach into the 90-cm soil profile; conversely, by controlling the application of nitrogen, having no tillage and performing straw returning, this could control the accumulation of nitrogen in the soil profile. The results of this study showed that nitrate accumulation in the 0–90 cm soil profile in Northeast China ranged from 5.54 to 81.44 N kg/ha, and averagely 56 N kg/ha which was only 50 % of the average value in Chinese farmlands . The average nitrate accumulation in North China and South China was 120 kg/ha and 133 kg/ha, respectively . In European Union, the residue N min was limited to lower than 90 kg/ha in many countries . In North China, Zhong et al.  suggested that the suitable residue N min was an advantage of N absorption and utilization by the successive crop; however, they further added that residue levels should not exceed 150 kg/ha in the winter wheat–summer maize rotation crop zone with high-yield and environmental protection. Therefore, in the continuous maize system in Northeast China, presently nitrate accumulation was within the rational levels. Furthermore, by reducing both the long-term fertilizer rate and controlled release fertilizer, the effect of fertilizer control was remarkable.
The amount of irrigation and rainfall influenced the nitrate accumulation peak in soil profiles. The analysis of the relationship between nitrate accumulation peak depth and rainfall in rain-fed agricultural regions with yearly 400–800 cm of rainfall was reported by Zhang . The authors noted that there was a positive correlation between the peak depth of nitrate and rainfall; furthermore, peak depth focused on the 80–200 cm soil layer. A large of nitrate in soils would be leached to deeper soil profile during periods of rainstorms and intense irrigation. Therefore, based on the above, it can be deduced that in this study there was a large possibility of the presence of nitrates in the deeper soil profiles.
Cumulative nitrate nitrogen in the 0–90 cm soil layer was associated with the application of nitrogen and precipitation in the rain-fed maize planting system. On average, the RF and CRF treatments decreased nitrate nitrogen by 16.6 and 39.5 % in the 0–90 cm soil layer, respectively, and maintained a relatively high maize grain yield, when compared with the FC treatment. Under the arid climate, the application of controlled release fertilizer increased the accumulation of nitrate in soils due to a restraint in release. However, the high precipitation resulted in the leaching of nitrate into the deeper soil layer. The maximum of nitrate nitrogen in the 0–90 cm soil layer was 81.4 kg N/ha at a nitrogen fertilizer rate of 250 kg N/ha in the long-term trial, which was within the rational and safe levels for groundwater. Therefore, the best fertilization strategy to decrease nitrate accumulation in soil should consider both soil characteristics and precipitation.
LY and ZZ carried out the analysis of yield and nitrate changes, AMA analyzed the effect factors of nitrate, all steps were supervised by JZ and QG. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors would like to acknowledge the National Maize (Zea mays L.) Production System in China and Special Fund for Agriculture Profession (201103003), the National Key Technology R&D Program (2011BAD11B05, 2013BAD07B02), and the National Key Project of Water Pollution Control & Management (2012ZX07201-001) for their financial support. We thank the anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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