Modelling maize grain yield and nitrate leaching from sludge-amended soils across agro-ecological zones: A case study from South Africa
When applying municipal sludge according to crop N requirements, the primary aim should be optimizing sludge application rates in order to maximize crop yield and minimize environmental impacts through nitrate leaching. Nitrate leaching and subsequent groundwater contamination is potentially one of the most important factors limiting the long-term viability of sludge application to agricultural soils. This study assessed maize grain yield and potential nitrate leaching from sludge-amended soils, using the SWB-Sci model, based on crop nitrogen requirements and inorganic fertilizer. The following hypotheses were tested using the SWB-Sci model and 20 years of measured weather data for 4 of the 6 South African agro-ecological zones. Under dryland maize cropping, grain yield and nitrate leaching from sludge-amended soils compared to inorganic fertilizer: (1) will remain the same across agro-ecological zones and sites, (2) will not vary across seasons at a specific site, and (3) will not vary across soil textures. Model simulations showed that annual maize grain yield and nitrate leaching varied significantly (P > 0.05) across the four agro-ecological zones, both for sludge-amended and inorganic fertilizer amended soils. The annual maize grain yield and nitrate leaching from sludge-amended soils were 12.6 t∙ha-1 and 32.7 kgNO3-N∙ha−1 compared to 10.2 t∙ha-1 and 43.2 kgNO3-N∙ha−1 for inorganic fertilizer in the super-humid zone. Similarly, maize grain yield and nitrate leaching varied significantly across seasons and soil textures for both sludge and inorganic fertilizer amended soils. However, nitrate losses were lower from sludge-amended soils (2.3–8.2%) compared to inorganic fertilizer (11.1–26.7%) across all zones in South Africa. Therefore, sludge applied according to crop N requirements has a lower environmental impact from nitrate leaching than commercial inorganic fertilizer. Further validation of these findings is recommended, using field studies, and monitoring potential P accumulation for soils that received sludge according to crop N requirements.
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