Compost, manure and synthetic fertilizer influences crop yields, soil properties, nitrate leaching and crop nutrient content

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From 1993 to 2001, a maize-vegetable-wheat rotation was compared using either 1) composts, 2) manure, or 3) synthetic fertilizer for nitrogen nutrient input. From 1993 to1998, red clover (Trifolium pratense L.) and crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum L.) were used as an annual winter legume cover crop prior to maize production. From 1999 to 2001, hairy vetch (Vicia villosa Roth.) served as the legume green manure nitrogen (N) source for maize. In this rotation, wheat depended entirely on residual N that remained in the soil after maize and vegetable (pepper and potato) production. Vegetables received either compost, manure, or fertilizer N inputs. Raw dairy manure stimulated the highest overall maize yields of 7,395 kg/ha (approximately 140 bushels per acre). This exceeded the Berks County mean yield of about 107 bushels per acre from 1994 to 2001. When hairy vetch replaced clover as the winter green manure cover crop, maize yields rose in three of the four treatments (approximately 500-1,300 kg/ha, or 10-24 bu/a). Hairy vetch cover cropping also resulted in a 9-25 % increase in wheat yields in the compost treatments compared to clover cover cropping. Hairy vetch cover crops increased both maize and wheat grain protein contents about 16 to 20% compared to the clover cover crop. Compost was superior to conventional synthetic fertilizer and raw dairy manure in 1) building soil nutrient levels, 2) providing residual nutrient support to wheat production, and 3) reducing nutrient losses to ground and surface waters. After 9 years, soil carbon (C) and soil N remained unchanged or declined slightly in the synthetic fertilizer treatment, but increased with use of compost amendments by 16-27% for C and by 13-16% for N. However, with hairy vetch cover crops, N leaching increased 4 times when compared to clover cover crops. September was the highest month for nitrate leaching, combining high rainfall with a lack of active cash crop or cover crop growth to use residual N. Broiler litter leaf compost (BLLC) showed the lowest nitrate leaching of all the nutrient amendments tested (P= 0.05).

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