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.


Soil Biogeochemistry and Microbial Ecology

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Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment



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© 2016 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier B.V.


This is an open access article published by Elsevier in Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment in 2016, available online: