Soil fertiltiy enhancement through appropriate fertilizer management on winter cover crops in a conservation agriculture system

No Thumbnail Available



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


University of Fort Hare


A study was carried out to determine the effects of oat (Avena sativa) and grazing vetch (Vicia darsycapa) winter cover crops and fertilizer application on SOM, phosphorus (P) pools, nutrient availability, nutrient uptake, maize yield and seedbanks of problematic weeds in an irrigated maize-based conservation agriculture (CA) system. A separate experiment was carried out to investigate the effects of the winter cover crops on nitrogen (N) management, N use efficiency and profitability. After four years of continuous rotation, the winter cover crops significantly (p<0.05) increased particulate SOM and hot water soluble carbon in the 0 – 5 and 5 – 20 cm soil depths. When fertilized, oat was better able to support SOM sequestration in water stable aggregates at 0 – 20 cm whilst grazing vetch was more effective at 20 – 50 cm. Where no fertilizer was invested, there were significant (p<0.01) reductions in biomass input and SOM on oat-maize and weedy fallow-maize rotations whereas vetch-maize rotations did not respond, both at 0 – 5 and 5 – 20 cm. Targeting fertilizer to the winter cover crop required less fertilizer, and yet gave a similar SOM response as targeting the fertilizer to the maize crop. In addition to increasing SOM in the surface soil (0 – 5 cm), the winter cover crops significantly (p<0.05) increased labile pools of P, including microbial P. The cover crops also significantly (p<0.05) increased maize P concentration during early growth, extractable soil P, Cu, Mn, and Zn but had no effect on Ca and K. Grazing vetch increased soil mineral N but reduced extractable soil Mg. Without fertilizer, there were sharp declines in maize grain yield on oat and weedy fallow rotations over the four year period, but less so, on the grazing vetch. Grazing vetch increased maize growth, grain yield response to N fertilizer, nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) and profitability for fertilizer rates below 180 kg N ha-1. Oat effects however on maize yield and NUE were generally similar to weedy fallow. Based on the partial factor productivity of N, the highest efficiencies in utilization of fertilizer N for maize yield improvement under grazing vetch and oat are obtained at 60 kg N ha-1 and would decline thereafter with any increases in fertilizer application rate. Grazing vetch gave N fertilizer replacement values of up to 120 kg N ha-1 as well as the highest marginal rates of return to increasing N fertilizer rate. The cover crops were more effective than the weedy fallow in reducing seedbank density of Digitaria sanguinalis, Eleusine indica, Amaranthus retroflexus and Datura stramonium at 0 – 5 cm soil depth, causing weed seed reductions of 30 - 70%. The winter cover crops however, selectively allowed emergence of the narrow leafed weeds; Cyperus esculentus and Digitaria sanguinalis in the maize crop. The findings of this study suggested that grazing vetch is suited for SOM improvement in low fertilizer input systems and that fertilizer is better invested on winter cover crops as opposed to maize crops. Oat, on the other hand, when fertilized, would be ideal for C sequestration in water stable aggregates of the surface soil. Grazing vetch is ideal for resource poor farmers who cannot afford mineral fertilizers as it gives grain yield improvement and high fertilizer replacement value. Grazing vetch can produce enough maize yield response to pay its way in the maize-based systems and oat may not require additional N than that applied to the weedy fallow. Phosphorus and Zn are some of the major limiting essential plant nutrients on South African soils and the winter cover crops could make a contribution. The cover crops also hasten depletion of some problematic weeds from seedbanks, leading to reduced weed pressure during maize growth.



Fertilizer; grazing vetch; maize yield; nitrogen; nutrient availability; oat; phosphorus; soil organic matter, Fertilizers, Crops -- Nutrition, Soil productivity, Range management, Grazing -- Management, Forage plants, Humus