Use of Stable Isotopes to Trace the Fate of Applied Nitrogen in Forest Plantations to Evaluate Fertilizer Efficiency and Ecosystem Impacts

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Virginia Tech

This study assessed five fertilizer treatments (control – no fertilizer, urea, urea treated with N-(n-butyl) thiophosphoric triamide (NBPT), coated urea + NBPT (CUF), polymer coated urea (PCU) ) during two application seasons (spring, summer) to: 1) compare fertilizer nitrogen (N) losses (see Chapter 2); 2) evaluate temporal N uptake patterns of loblolly pine (see Chapter 3); and 3) evaluate fertilizer N cycling and partitioning in a loblolly pine ecosystem (see Chapter 4). Chapter 2 results showed enhanced efficiency fertilizers (EEFs) significantly reduced ammonia (NH3) volatilization losses compared to urea. Mean NH3 volatilization after spring fertilization ranged from 4% to 26% for EEFs versus 26% to 40% for urea, and 8% to 23% for EEFs versus 29% to 49% for urea in summer. Chapter 3 results showed an increase in timing and development of foliage in fertilized compared to unfertilized plots. In addition, the cumulative N uptake by loblolly pines increased over the entire growing season from N originating from fertilizer and natural sources. Chapter 4 results showed greater fertilizer N recovery for EEFs in both spring and summer (80%, 70-80% respectively) compared to urea (60%, 50% respectively) with most fertilizer N recovered from mineral soil (20% to 50%) and loblolly pines (10% to 50%). Three primary conclusions come from this research: 1) EEFs reduce NH3 volatilization after N fertilization compared to urea regardless of application timing and weather conditions (see Chapter 2); 2) N uptake by loblolly pines increases over the entire growing season after N fertilization (see Chapter 3); more fertilizer N remains in the ecosystem with EEFs compared to urea with most fertilizer N remaining in the soil (see Chapter 4). From these findings, we hypothesize that the EEFs in this study: 1) reduce ammonia volatilization which 2) translates to an increase in fertilizer nitrogen remaining in the loblolly pine plantation system that 3) increases the amount of plant available nitrogen for an extended period into the stand rotation and 4) increases fertilizer nitrogen use efficiency (FNUE) for all enhanced efficiency fertilizers investigated in this study compared to the conventional form of fertilizer N used in forestry, urea.

15N, forest fertilization, nitrogen cycle, plantation forestry