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Soil Research Soil Research Society
Soil, land care and environmental research

Effects of tillage practices on soil and water phosphorus and nitrogen fractions in a Chromosol at Rutherglen in Victoria, Australia

Nicole J. Mathers A B and David M. Nash A

A Future Farming Systems Research Division, Department of Primary Industries – Ellinbank Centre, 1301 Hazeldean Rd, Ellinbank, Vic. 3821, Australia.

B Corresponding author. Email:

Australian Journal of Soil Research 47(1) 46-59
Submitted: 1 May 2008  Accepted: 2 December 2008   Published: 18 February 2009


Phosphorus (P) and nitrogen (N) exports from cropping areas can be greater than those from uncropped areas. Conservation farming methods, involving minimal tillage and full stubble retention, offer significant benefits to grain cropping, but may increase nutrient concentrations in surface (i.e. 0–20 mm) soils, resulting in increased risks of nutrient mobilisation and loss. The effects of tillage and stubble management on soil nutrients that are potentially mobilised into runoff from a long-term trial site at Rutherglen (established in 1981) were investigated. On 2 different sampling dates (February and August 2006) soils from the 0–20, 20–50, and 50–150 mm depths were collected from 3 treatments: conventional cultivation with stubble burning (CCb); direct drill with stubble burning (DDb); and direct drill with stubble retained (DDr). In 2004, the trial was sown with wheat (Triticum aestivum cv. Dollarbird), followed by faba beans in 2005 (Vicia faba L.) and wheat again in 2006. In August 2006, a rainfall simulation experiment was also conducted on these sites.

All nutrient concentrations decreased with depth to 150 mm in all treatments, when both sampling dates were analysed together. This indicated that soil nutrient stratification was occurring in all 3 treatments. The CCb treatment only displayed differences between the 0–20 and 20–50 mm depths for soil organic C and ammonium-N. DDr significantly increased some nutrient concentrations in the 0–20 mm soil depth compared with the CCb treatment, including CaCl2-extractable P (0.76 and 0.50 mg/kg, for DDr and CCb, respectively), total N (1.23 and 1.00 g/kg, for DDr and CCb, respectively), and nitrate-N (12.6 and 8.63 mg/kg, for DDr and CCb, respectively), while the ammonium-N concentration was greater under CCb (9.71 mg/kg) than DDr (6.46 mg/kg). Being water-soluble, CaCl2-extractable P and nitrate-N are more likely be mobilised into streams from the 0–20 mm depth, where they are highly bioavailable and may contribute to increased eutrophication.

Direct drilling with stubble retention contributed a greater proportion of particulate P and N to TP (Total P) and TN (Total N) in surface runoff than either of the burnt systems. Particulate P accounted for 75%, 67%, and 83% of TP in surface runoff from the CCb, DDb, and DDr treatments, respectively. However, the highly bioavailable dissolved reactive P (DRP) was the dominant form of dissolved P, with concentrations exceeding the recommended guidelines of 0.05 mg P/L in the lowlands of south-east Australia. Total N (0.44, 0.68, and 0.73 mg N/L for DDr, DDb, and CCb, respectively) in surface runoff was dominated by nitrate-N and also exceeded current Australian guidelines of 0.5 mg N/L, except for TN from the DDr treatment.

These results would indicate that P, particularly the non-dominant but highly bioavailable form of DRP, exported from these systems is more likely to adversely affect catchment water quality than N exports. The increase in surface runoff volumes and nutrient loads from the CCb treatment observed in this study indicate that DDr systems have increased soil infiltration properties and retained nutrients within the soil–plant system. Therefore, direct drilling with stubble retention in the high rainfall zone cropping areas of north-east Victoria is more likely to retain nutrients on-site and improve soil fertility than burning stubble and cultivating the soil.

Additional keywords: direct drill, stubble retention, conventional cultivation, nutrient export, simulated rainfall.


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