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Tillage, mulch and fertiliser impacts on soil nitrogen availability and maize production in semi-arid Zimbabwe
Conservation agriculture has been promoted widely in sub-Saharan African to cushion smallholder farmers against the adverse effects of soil fertility decline, stabilize crop yields and increase resilience to climate change and variability. Our study aimed to determine if aspects of CA, namely tillage and mulching with manure and fertiliser application, improved soil mineral N release, plant N uptake and maize yields in cropping systems on poor soils in semi-arid Matobo, Zimbabwe. The experiment, run for three seasons (2012/13–2014/15), was a split-split plot design with three replicates. Tillage (animal-drawn ploughing and ripping) was the main plot treatment and residue application was the sub plot treatment with two levels (100% residues removed or retained after harvest). Five fertility amendments (mineral fertiliser at 0, 20 and 40 kg N ha-1, 5 t ha-1 manure only and 5 t ha-1 manure + 20 kg N ha-1) were sub-sub plot treatments. Plough tillage stimulated N mineralisation by 4–19 kg N ha-1 and maize N uptake 13–23% more than the ripper tillage. When mulch was added to the plough tillage, mineralisation was slowed resulting in less crop N uptake (by 5–19%) compared with no mulch application. N uptake was highest in the manure treatments. N recovery and agronomic N efficiency by maize were highly variable over the three seasons, reflecting the uncertainty complicating farmers’ decision making. Nitrogen recovery in the manure treatments was generally poor in the first season resulting in low grain yields in the range 100–260 kg ha-1 regardless of tillage, though higher in subsequent seasons. In the second season manure application gave the largest grain yields under the ripper tillage, both with and without mulch averaging 1850 and 2228 kg ha-1 respectively. Under the plough tillage, the 40 kg N ha-1 treatment gave the highest grain yields of 1985 kg ha-1. In the third season yields were generally poor under all treatments due to low and poorly-distributed rainfall. The CA principles of minimum soil disturbance and maintenance of a permanent mulch cover resulted in reduced soil mineral N availability for crop uptake and poor maize yields. Nutrient inputs through mineral fertilisers and manure are key to ensuring production in such infertile, sandy soils which predominate in semi-arid regions of southern Africa.