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Nitrogen balances in farmers fields under alternative uses of a cover crop legume: a case study from Nicaragua


Canavalia brasiliensis (canavalia), a drought tolerant legume, was introduced into the smallholder traditional crop-livestock production system of the Nicaraguan hillsides as green manure to improve soil fertility or as forage during the dry season for improving milk production. Since nitrogen (N) is considered the most limiting nutrient for agricultural production in the target area, the objective of this study was to quantify the soil surface N budgets at plot level in farmers fields over two cropping years for the traditional maize/bean rotation and the alternative maize/canavalia rotation. Mineral fertilizer N, seed N and symbiotically fixed N were summed up as N input to the system. Symbiotic N2 fixation was assessed using the 15N natural abundance method. Nitrogen output was quantified as N export via harvested products. Canavalia derived in average 69% of its N from the atmosphere. The amount of N fixed per hectare varied highly according to the biomass production, which ranged from 0 to 5,700 kg ha−1. When used as green manure, canavalia increased the N balance of the maize/canavalia rotation but had no effect on the N uptake of the following maize crop. When used as forage, it bears the risk of a soil N depletion up to 41 kg N ha−1 unless N would be recycled to the plot by animal manure. Without N mineral fertilizer application, the N budget remains negative even if canavalia was used as green manure. Therefore, the replenishment of soil N stocks by using canavalia may need a few years, during which the application of mineral N fertilizer needs to be maintained to sustain agricultural production.

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  1. 1.




Bean grain


Bean plant


Canavalia above-ground biomass


Canavalia biomass removed


15N natural abundance signature (‰)






Maize-canavalia with X% of canavalia biomass removed


Maize grain


Maize damaged grain


Maize cob


Maize husk


Maize recycled ears


Maize residues (stalks and leaves)




Rate of nitrogen derived from the atmosphere


Amount of nitrogen applied with mineral fertilizers (kg ha−1)


Amount of nitrogen fixed (kg ha−1)


Amount of nitrogen supplied through seeds (kg ha−1) at the time of sowing

NX :

Amount of nitrogen in the plant part X (kg ha−1)


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We warmly thank Don Felipe Calderón, Don Gabriel Ruiz, Don Lorenzo Peralta and Don Pedro Torres, the four farmers of Santa Teresa who participated in this study. We also gratefully acknowledge fieldwork assistance by Alexander Benavidez (INTA) and Noémi Uehlinger (ETH), as well as samples preparation by Elbis Chavarria and Gonzalo Borrero (CIAT). We thank two anonymous reviewers as well as Prof. Dr. Georg Cadisch (University of Hohenheim, Germany) for useful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. Financial support was provided by the North–South Center of ETH Zurich.

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Douxchamps, S., Humbert, FL., van der Hoek, R. et al. Nitrogen balances in farmers fields under alternative uses of a cover crop legume: a case study from Nicaragua. Nutr Cycl Agroecosyst 88, 447–462 (2010).

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  • 15N natural abundance method
  • Canavalia brasiliensis
  • Forage legume
  • Nicaraguan hillsides
  • Nitrogen budget
  • On-farm trials