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Science of The Total Environment
Volume 775, 2021, 145930

Long-term straw mulching with nitrogen fertilization increases nutrient and microbial determinants of soil quality in a maize–wheat rotation on China's Loess Plateau

Qiuyu Chena, Zhanjun Liua, Jianbin Zhoua, Xinpeng Xub, Yuanjun Zhuc

College of Natural Resources and Environment, Northwest A&F University, Yangling 712100, China.

Abstract

Mulching and nitrogen (N) fertilization are essential to increase crop yields in semiarid drylands. However, their long-term effects on soil physicochemical properties, extracellular enzyme activities, microbial community structure, and therefore soil quality via developing a soil quality index (SQI) remain largely unexplored. Hence, we analyzed soils after 14 years of mulching (CT, no mulch; RF, plastic film-mulched ridges and straw mulched-furrows; SM, straw mulching) and N fertilization (0, 120 and 240 kg ha−1) treatments in a maize–wheat rotation on China's Loess Plateau. Compared with CT, RF and SM significantly increased soil moisture content (SMC), organic carbon (SOC), phosphatase, and total phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs). Compared with RF, SM increased SOC, total N, available phosphorus (AP), available potassium (AK), β-glucosidase, N-acetyl-glucosaminidase (NAG), peroxidase, and cellobiohydrolase, gram-negative bacteria (G−), and fungi. Consequently, the SQI was highest in SM (0.698), followed by RF (0.642) and CT (0.620). Nitrogen fertilization significantly increased total N, NO3−, microbial biomass N, α-glucosidase, NAG, total PLFAs, and G−, but caused a significant decline in pH, AP, AK, and the G+:G− ratio. Averaged across N-fertilizations, the SQI was ranked N240 (0.680) > N120 (0.650) > N0 (0.630). Redundancy analysis showed that SOC was closely associated with enzyme activities, whereas NO3−, SOC, and SMC were the key variables regulating microbial community composition. Structural equation model indicated that mulching and N fertilization strongly and positively affected SQI by regulating soil available N, P, and K, enzyme activities, and microbial communities, and the total effect of mulching (0.62) on SQI was greater than that of N addition (0.34). Collectively, the highest SQI observed in the SM + N240 treatment suggested that straw mulch, rather than plastic-film mulch, combined with high N addition could be a sustainable land management practice that improves soil quality in semiarid dryland farming systems.

Keywords: Mulching, Nitrogen fertilization, Enzyme activities, Phospholipid fatty acids, Soil quality index.

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