Onion fertility has been an important subject with regards to onion productivity worldwide. In particular, onion has a shallow branched root system with most roots in the top 30 cm of soil (Portas, 1973; Weaver and Brunner, 1927). Characteristically, such a root system leads to the low density of roots in onion. This shallow root system means onion requires more fertilizer to produce the crop (Brewster, 2008; Greenwood et al., 1982).
For sustainable crop production, pesticides and herbicides are not allowed and application rates of mineral fertilizers are restricted legally in Korea. N, P, and K application rates for onion production are recommended as 240, 34, and 128 kg·ha−1, respectively, where 67% of N and 60% of K fertilizer are applied in two split sidedressings [Rural Development Administration (RDA, 2006)]. In addition, the quantity of mineral fertilizer should be reduced to a third based on the recommended rates of N, P, and K to produce certified products without agricultural chemicals. Thus, nutrient management for sustainable crop production depends on compost from animal manures or organic fertilizers. Compost can serve as an alternative to mineral fertilizers for improving soil structure (Dauda et al., 2008) and microbial biomass (Suresh et al., 2004). The rate, timing, and technique of application can be controlled by the grower; however, compost quality can vary considerably within the same source and different sources at various times of the year (Gaskell and Smith, 2007). Gaskell and Smith (2007) stated that the N availability from compost to the succeeding crop was variable, ranging from negative to low N recovery rates of 4% to 15%, to a high rate of 57%. Wallace (2006) developed guidelines for using the carbon to N (C:N) ratio of the compost to determine its availability.
Moreover, the response of onion crops to manure depends on N availability for crop growth. N availability from manure varies greatly depending on the type of animal, type and amount of bedding, and age and storage conditions of the manure (Bary et al., 2000). Characterization of chemical constituents for inputs of the manure may help predict intermediate-term mineralization rates (Palm et al., 2001). However, the process may vary with weather conditions such as rainfall and temperature (Rosen and Allen, 2007). Long-term manure application based on N can result in the accumulation of other nutrients such as P and K in soil and eventually reach excessive levels (Bary et al., 2000). Further, over applying manure may also increase the risk of contaminating surface or groundwater with P (Biberacher et al., 2009).
Yield response to compost is greater in soils with low fertility, but response varies depending on the compost source (Gallardo-Lara and Nogales, 1987). When onion plants were grown in plots of sandy loam soil, compost applied over a two-year period at cumulative totals of 37 Mg·ha−1 increased marketable yield (Bevacqua and Mellano, 1993). There was a significant linear effect on total onion yield with increasing fresh poultry litter applications from 0 to 22 Mg·ha−1 (Boyhan et al., 2010). However, onion yield response to animal manure or compost rates was not always positive (Abdelrazzag, 2002; Gambo et al., 2008). Vidigal et al. (2010) reported that the application of 43 Mg·ha−1 swine compost resulted in onion bulbs with greater size and higher marketable yield.
Although growers supporting sustainable agriculture have been trying to increase onion yield by increased compost application, the effect of compost may not be sufficient in the short term. The objective of this study was to evaluate the effect of composted beef manure on the yield of intermediate-day onion and soil fertility under reduced chemical fertilization rates during short-term practices.
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