Pre-sidedress Soil Nitrate Testing Identifies Processing Tomato Fields Not Requiring Sidedress N Fertilizer

in HortScience

Overuse of chemical N fertilizers has been linked to nitrate contamination of both surface and ground water. Excessive use of fertilizer also is an economic loss to the farmer. Typical N application rates for processing tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum Mill.) production in California are 150 to 250 kg·ha-1. The contributions of residual soil NO3-N and in-season N mineralization to plant nutrient status are generally not included in fertilizer input calculations, often resulting in overuse of fertilizer. The primary goal of this research was to determine if the pre-sidedress soil nitrate test (PSNT) could identify fields not requiring sidedress N application to achieve maximum tomato yield; a secondary goal was to evaluate tissue N testing currently used for identifying post-sidedress plant N deficiencies. Field experiments were conducted during 1998 and 1999. Pre-sidedress soil nitrate concentrations were determined to a depth of 60 cm at 10 field sites. N mineralization rate was estimated by aerobic incubation test. Sidedress fertilizer was applied at six incremental rates from 0 to 280 kg·ha-1 N, with six replications per field. At harvest, only four fields showed a fruit yield response to fertilizer application. Within the responsive fields, fruit yields were not increased with sidedress N application above 112 kg·ha-1. Yield response to sidedress N did not occur in fields with pre-sidedress soil NO3-N levels >16 mg·kg-1. Soil sample NO3-N levels from 30 cm and 60 cm sampling depth were strongly correlated. Mineralization was estimated to contribute an average of 60 kg·ha-1 N between sidedressing and harvest. Plant tissue NO3-N concentration was found to be most strongly correlated to plant N deficiency at fruit set growth stage. Dry petiole NO3-N was determined to be a more accurate indicator of plant N status than petiole sap NO3-N measured by a nitrate-selective electrode. The results from this study suggested that N fertilizer inputs could be reduced substantially below current industry norms without reducing yields in fields identified by the PSNT as having residual pre-sidedress soil NO3-N levels >16 mg·kg-1 in the top 60 cm.

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