Nitrogen (N) export from soils to streams and groundwater under the intensifying cropping schemes of the Pampas is modest compared to intensively cultivated basins of Europe and North America; however, a slow N enrichment of water resources has been suggested. We (1) analyzed the fate of fertilizer N and (2) evaluated the contribution of fertilizer and soil organic matter (SOM) to N leaching under the typical cropping conditions of the Pampas. Fertilizer N was applied as 15N-labeled ammonium sulfate to corn (in a corn/soybean rotation) sown under zero tillage in filled-in lysimeters containing two soils of different texture representative of the Pampean region (52 and 78 kg N ha-1, added to the silt loam and sandy loam soil, respectively). Total fertilizer recovery at corn harvest averaged 84 and 64% for the silt loam and sandy loam lysimeters, respectively. Most fertilizer N was removed with plant biomass (39%) or remained immobilized in the soil (29 and 15%, for the silt loam and sandy loam soil, respectively) whereas its loss through drainage was negligible (<0.01%). We presume that the unaccounted fertilizer N losses were related to volatilization and denitrification. Throughout the corn growing season, subsequent fallow and soybean crop, which took place during an exceptionally dry period, the fertilizer N immobilized in the organic pool remained stable, and N leaching was scarce (7.5 kg N ha-1), similar at both soils, and had a low contribution of fertilizer N (0–3.5%), implying that >96% of the leached N was derived from SOM mineralization. The inherent high SOM of Pampean soils and the favorable climatic conditions are likely to propitiate year-round production of nitrate, favoring its participation in crop nutrition and leaching. The presence of 15N in drainage water, however, suggests that fertilizer N leaching could become significant in situations with higher fertilization rates or more rainy seasons.
Keywords: Corn - Field lysimeters - Humid Pampas - 15N-labeled fertilizer - Soil organic matter - Nitrogen leaching