Municipal sludge as source of nitrogen and phosphorus in perennial pasture Eragrostis curvula production: Agronomic benefits and environmental impacts
Land application of sludge has been shown to improve soil properties and aid crop growth, but the possibility of constituent nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus reaching environmentally toxic levels has caused governing authorities to set limits to how much sludge can be applied to agronomic land. The high nitrogen utilisation potential of pasture grasses suggests that more sludge can be used in this cropping system without the risk of excess nitrates. This study investigates the effect of exceeding the South African sludge application limit on hay yield, soil nitrates and phosphorus. Field plots were arranged in a complete block design comprising 4 replications of 4 treatments planted to Eragrostis curvula. The treatments consisted of 0, 4, 8 and 16 Mg∙ha-1 anaerobically digested sludge. Soil samples were collected before treatment application and at the end of each growing season for N, P, NO3-, NH4+, and Bray-1P analyses. Plant samples were collected at flowering stage for hay yield and N and P uptake determination. Statistical analyses were conducted using analysis of variance (ANOVA) and general linear model (GLM) procedures of Windows SAS 9.0 to evaluate the effect of sludge application rates on hay yield. Results over 4 growing seasons indicate that exceeding the recommended limit increased hay yield by 4% in a dry season (11.7 vs. 12.36 Mg∙ha-1) and by 16% in a wet season (14.19 vs. 17.31 Mg∙ha-1) and also increased nitrogen uptake by 15%. Sludge applied at double the recommended limit did not cause the accumulation of nitrate and ammonium in the soil, however, both total and Bray-1P were doubled. The study shows that the potential long-term environmental risk of doubling the sludge application rate norm would be from labile P accumulation in the soil profile despite a sludge P:Fe molar ratio of less than unity.
Keywords: sludge, Eragrostis curvula, nitrogen, phosphorus, leaching