An evaluation of nitrogen indicators for soil health in long-term agricultural experiments
Various soil health indicators that measure a chemically defined fraction of nitrogen (N) or a process related to N cycling have been proposed to quantify the potential to supply N to crops, a key soil function. We evaluated five N indicators (total soil N, autoclavable citrate extractable N, water-extractable organic N, potentially mineralizable N, and N-acetyl-β-D-glucosaminidase activity) at 124 sites with long-term experiments across North America evaluating a variety of managements. We found that 59%–81% of the variation in N indicators was among sites, with indicator values decreasing with temperature and increasing with precipitation and clay content. The N indicators increased from 6%–39% in response to decreasing tillage, cover cropping, retaining residue, and applying organic sources of nutrients. Overall, increasing the quantity of organic inputs, whether from increased residue retention, cover cropping, or rotations with higher biomass, resulted in higher values of the N indicators. Although N indicators responded to management in similar ways, the analysis cost and availability of testing laboratories is highly variable. Further, given the strong relationships of the N indicators with carbon (C) indicators, measuring soil organic C along with 24-h potential C mineralization could be used as a proxy for N supply instead of measuring potentially mineralizable N or any other N indicator directly.