Plant and Soil

, Volume 341, Issue 1–2, pp 179–192 | Cite as

Nitrogen recoveries from organic amendments in crop and soil assessed by isotope techniques under tropical field conditions

  • Sabine Douxchamps
  • Emmanuel Frossard
  • Stefano M. Bernasconi
  • Rein van der Hoek
  • Axel Schmidt
  • Idupulapati M. Rao
  • Astrid Oberson
Regular Article


The integration of multipurpose legumes into low-input tropical agricultural systems is needed because they are a nitrogen (N) input through symbiotic fixation. The drought-tolerant cover legume canavalia (Canavalia brasiliensis) has been introduced for use either as forage or as a green manure into the crop-livestock system of the Nicaraguan hillsides. To evaluate its impact on the subsequent maize crop, an in-depth study on N dynamics in the soil-plant system was conducted. Microplots were installed in a 6-year old field experiment with maize-canavalia rotation. Direct and indirect 15N-labelling techniques were used to determine N uptake by maize from canavalia residues and canavalia-fed cows’ manure compared to mineral fertilizer. Litter bags were used to determine the N release from canavalia residues. The incorporation of N from the amendment into different soil N pools (total N, mineral N, microbial biomass) was followed during the maize cropping season. Maize took up an average of 13.3 g N m−2, within which 1.0 g N m−2 was from canavalia residues and 2.6 g N m−2 was from mineral fertilizer, corresponding to an amendment N recovery of 12% and 32%, respectively. Recoveries in maize would probably be higher at a site with lower soil available N content. Most of the amendment N remained in the soil. Mineral N and microbial N were composed mainly of N derived from the soil. Combined total 15N recovery in maize and soil at harvest was highest for the canavalia residue treatment with 98% recovery, followed by the mineral fertilizer treatment with 83% recovery. Despite similar initial enrichment of soil microbial and mineral N pools, the indirect labelling technique failed to assess the N fertilizer value of mineral and organic amendments due to a high N mineralization from the soil organic matter.


Canavalia brasiliensis 15Indirect and direct labelling techniques Microplot study Organic amendments 



days after amendment


direct labelling technique


indirect labelling technique




amount of N derived from the amendment


amount of N derived from the soil


soil mineral N


total soil N


soil microbial N


15N enrichment of the respective X pool



This work was supported by the North-South Center of ETH Zurich. We gratefully acknowledge technical assistance in the field by Carlos Rodriguez and Elbis Chavarria (CIAT) as well as Don Mancho. We warmly thank Gonzalo Borrero (CIAT) for research assistance with sample preparation and lab analysis. We also acknowledge lab assistance by Marlen Calero, as well as lab technical advices from Dr. Christina Bosshard. Thanks to Leonardo Garcia (Universidad Nacional Agraria) for allowing the use of his laboratories in Managua, Nicaragua. We acknowledge part of the mass spectrometer measurements in canavalia by Myles Stocki (University of Saskatchewan) and English language correction by Angela Erb. We thank Prof. Dr. Georg Cadisch (University of Hohenheim, Germany) and two anonymous reviewers for useful comments on the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sabine Douxchamps
    • 1
  • Emmanuel Frossard
    • 1
  • Stefano M. Bernasconi
    • 2
  • Rein van der Hoek
    • 3
  • Axel Schmidt
    • 3
  • Idupulapati M. Rao
    • 4
  • Astrid Oberson
    • 1
  1. 1.Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH)Institute of Plant, Animal and Agroecosystem SciencesLindauSwitzerland
  2. 2.Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH)Geological InstituteZurichSwitzerland
  3. 3.Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT)ManaguaNicaragua
  4. 4.Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT)CaliColombia

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