High rates of nitrogen cycling in volcanic soils from Chilean grasslands.

Research paper by E R ER Dixon, L L Cardenas, M M Alfaro, F F Salazar, D J DJ Hatch

Indexed on: 20 May '11Published on: 20 May '11Published in: Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry


There are over one million hectares of pasture in Chile, and 80% and 50% of the country's milk and meat comes from 72% of this area, situated in the lake region of southern Chile. The soils are volcanic and a major characteristic is that they have very high organic matter (OM) contents with the potential to support plant growth with only moderate levels of added nitrogen (N). To understand better the potential fertility of these soils in order to maximise production and minimise losses of N, we undertook studies using the stable isotope of N ((15)N) to resolve the rates of the main internal N cycling processes in three soils representing the two main volcanic soil types: Osorno and Chiloé (Andisol) and Cudico (Ultisol). We also assessed the longer-term potential of these soils to sustain N release using anaerobic incubation. Gross rates (µg N g(-1) day(-1)) of mineralisation were 27.9, 27.1 and 15.5 and rates of immobilisation were 5.9, 12.0 and 6.3 for Osorno, Chiloé and Cudico, respectively, implying high rates of net mineralisation in these soils. This was confirmed by anaerobic incubation which gave potential seasonal net mineralisation indices of 1225, 1059 and 450 kg N ha(-1) in the top 10 cm soil layers of the three soils. However, plant production may still benefit from added N, as the release of N from organic sources may not be closely synchronised with crop demand. The low rates of nitrification that we found with these acidic soils suggest that the more mobile N (viz. nitrate-N) would be in limited supply and plants would have to compete for the less mobile ammonium-N with the soil microbial biomass. Nitrogen was mineralised in appreciable amounts even down to 60 cm depth, so that leaching could become significant, particularly if the soils were limed, which could enhance nitrification and N mobility through the soil profile.