An improved way to determine nitrogen fertiliser requirements of sugarcane crops to meet global environmental challenges
Fertigation can be a more efficient means of applying crop nutrients, particularly nitrogen (N), so that nutrient application rates can be reduced in fertigated crops. However, there is little information on the extent of the possible reduction in N application rate for fertigated sugarcane, one of the major row crops grown under trickle irrigation, nor the fate of N in fertigated sugarcane systems if N application rates are not reduced. An experiment was established to determine the response of cane and sugar production to different N rates (0–240 kg ha−1 year−1) spanning that recommended for conventional irrigation systems (160 kg ha−1 year−1). As well as yield, N removed in the crop and changes in soil mineral N were determined annually for four crops (a plant and three ratoon crops). δ15N values were also measured in selected treatments at selected times to assess possible N inputs to the experiment via biological N fixation (BFN). Yields of cane and sugar responded to application of N fertiliser in the three ratoon crops, but they were not significantly increased by applying more than 80 kg ha−1 of N. There were no N responses in the plant crop, as there was >200 kg ha−1 of soil mineral N (SMN) to 2 m depth at the site prior to planting, and much of this SMN was depleted in the treatment receiving no N. There was no evidence of N input from BFN in the experiment. During the 4-year study period, net removal of N from the treatment with no applied N totalled 207 kg ha−1. When 80 or 120 kg ha−1 year−1 of N was applied to ratoon crops, outputs of N from the harvested crop approximately balanced inputs from fertiliser and depletion of SMN during the experiment. Inputs clearly exceeded output at higher N application rates. Assuming that the net removal of N from the treatment with no applied N was the same as the net mineralisation of N from soil organic matter in all treatments in the experiment, 204–639 kg ha−1 of N was unaccounted for in the treatments with applied N over the duration of the experiment. While some of this N (e.g. 45 kg ha−1) may have resulted in small (and undetectable) increases in total soil N, much of it would have been lost to the environment. We suggest that the high soil water contents maintained with daily application of irrigation water through the trickle system promotes mineralisation of soil organic matter and hence losses of N to the environment. Thus, particular care is required to avoid over-application of N in fertigated sugarcane.