Precision control of soil nitrogen cycling via soil functional zone management

Alwyn Williams, Adam S. Davis, Patrick M. Ewing, A. Stuart Grandy, Daniel A. Kane, Roger T. Koide, David A. Mortensen, Richard G. Smith, Sieglinde S. Snapp, Kurt A. Spokas, Anthony C. Yannarell, Nicholas R. Jordan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Managing the soil nitrogen (N) cycle is a major component of agricultural sustainability. Soil functional zone management (zonal management) is a novel agroecological strategy for managing row-crop agroecosystems. It may improve the efficiency of soil N cycling compared with conventional and no-tillage approaches, by managing the timing and location (crop row vs inter-row) of key soil N cycling processes. We compared N mineralization and availability during the period of maize peak N demand in crop rows and inter-rows in zonal management and conventional chisel plow tillage systems at four sites across the US Corn Belt over three growing seasons. Under zonal management, potential N mineralization and N availability during crop peak N demand were significantly greater in crop rows, where the majority of crop roots are found, compared with inter-rows. Averaged across all site-years, plant-available N in zonal management crop rows was 46 mg kg−1 compared with 21 mg kg−1 in inter-rows. In contrast, in conventional tillage, potential N mineralization and N availability were greater in inter-rows compared with crop rows; averaged across all site-years, plant-available N in conventional tillage crop rows was 24 mg kg−1 compared with 51 mg kg−1 in inter-rows. The results demonstrate that the active management of crop residues under zonal management can enhance the spatiotemporal efficiency of soil N cycling processes, by concentrating N mineralization and availability close to crop roots in synchrony with crop developmental needs. Zonal management therefore has potential to increase crop N-use efficiency compared with conventional tillage, and thereby reduce the impacts of row-crop agricultural production on water resources and greenhouse gas emissions that result from N leaching and denitrification.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)291-295
Number of pages5
JournalAgriculture, Ecosystems and Environment
StatePublished - Sep 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Thank you Vincent Filicetti, Sheri Huerd, Matt Peoples, Martin du Saire and Lee Yang for help in data collection. This material is based on work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture , under award number 2011-67003-30343 . The use of trade, firm, or corporation names in this paper is for the information and convenience of the reader. Such use does not constitute an official endorsement or approval by the USDA or the Agricultural Research Service of any product or service to the exclusion of others that may be suitable. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 The Author(s)


  • Agriculture
  • Agroecology
  • Ecological intensification
  • Microbial processes
  • Tillage
  • Zonal management


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