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Contribution of agroforestry trees to nutrient requirements of intercropped plants

Abstract

A major tenet of agroforestry, that trees maintain soil fertility, is based primarily on observations of higher crop yields near trees or where trees were previously grown. Recently objective analyses and controlled experiments have addressed this topic. This paper examines the issues of tree prunings containing sufficient nutrients to meet crop demands, the timing of nutrient transfer from decomposition to intercrops, the percent of nutrients released that are taken up by the crop, and the fate of nutrients not taken up by the crop.

The amount of nutrients provided by prunings are determined by the production rate and nutrient concentrations, both depending on climate, soil type, tree species, plant part, tree density and tree pruning regime. A large number of screening and alley cropping trials in different climate-soil environments indicate that prunings of several tree species contain sufficient nutrients to meet crop demand, with the notable exception of phosphorus. Specific recommendations for the appropriate trees in a given environment await synthesis of existing data, currently only general guidelines can be provided.

Tree biomass containing sufficient nutrients to meet crop demand is not enough, the nutrients must be supplied in synchrony to crop needs. Nutrient release patterns from organic materials are, in part, determined by their chemical composition, or quality. Leguminous materials release nitrogen immediately, unless they contain high levels of lignin or polyphenols. Nonlegumes and litter of both legumes and nonlegumes generally immobilize N initially. There is little data on release patterns of other nutrients. Indices that predict nutrient release patterns will assist in the selection of species for synchronizing with crop demand and improve nutrient use-efficiency.

Field trials with agroforestry species ranging in quality show that as much as 80% of the nutrients are released during the course of annual crop growth but less than 20% is captured by the crop, a low nutrient-use efficiency. There are insufficient data to determine how much of the N not captured by the crop is captured by the trees or is in the soil organic matter, the availability of that N to subsequent crops, or how much of that N is lost through leaching, volatilization or denitrification. Longer term trials are needed.

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Palm, C.A. Contribution of agroforestry trees to nutrient requirements of intercropped plants. Agroforest Syst 30, 105–124 (1995). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00708916

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Key words

  • lignin
  • nutrient content
  • nutrient release
  • polyphenols
  • prunings
  • synchrony