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Plant and Soil 122, 151-156 (1990).

Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

PLSO 8112

Effects of length of forest fallow on fertility dynamics in a Mexican ultisol


Department of Land, Air and Water Resources, 139 Hoagland Hall, University of California, Davis, CA
95616, USA
Received 19 January 1989. Revised October 1989

Key words:

agro-ec0systems, nutrient leaching, rain forest, shifting cultivation, soil organic matter,
slash-and-burn agriculture, tropical soils

Changes with time in the fertility of a Mexican ultisol were evaluated from analyses of soil samples from
fields representing 50 years of pineapple slash-and-burn agriculture. Sixteen fields with similar soil profile
charactersitics representing eight ages of forest fallow were sampled. The fields, within an area of 5 km 2 of
nearly level tropical forest, had been cleared by hand, initially intercropped with corn and manioc, followed
with 3 to 4 y of pineapple, and then abandoned.
The surface soils contained relatively high levels of C and N (5% and 0.3% respectively), were strongly
acid (pH 5 to 5.5), and supplied very low levels of available P and K. Soil contents of both C and N declined
rapidly after clearing to levels approximately 20% lower at 10 y, then increased steadily during the fallow
period to values not different from their initial levels. Since little of the N released was utilized by the
low-yielding, P-deficient crops, this loss of C, N and accompanying cations is a most serious consequence
of this rotation. Both the exchangeable and reserve K levels of these ultisols are low. Thus, K is identified
as second to P as a growth limiting factor and the most difficult fertility management problem.


The welfare of these people depends upon the

maintenance of their soil resource. This study was
done to characterize the soils of the area, to
evaluate changes in their chemical properties
during slash-and-burn cultivation, and to determine how production might be improved within the
constraints of the climate and resources of the area.
The study area is located in the southwestern
portion of Tabasco in an area known as the Sabana
de Huimanguillo. The mean annual air temperature is 26 C with little seasonal variation, and
the mean annual precipitation is 2410mm with a
minimum falling in July and August. The soils of
the area developed on nearly level Pleistocene
alluvial terraces derived from mixed sedimentary
rocks and are presently classified as Typic
Paleudults (Palma-Lopez et al., 1985). They have
thin surface horizons rich in organic matter containing 20---25 % clay, overlying thick subsurface
argillic horizons. The surface horizon clays are

As a result of economic and population pressures, large areas of forested lands in the udic
tropics are converted to more intensive agriculture
each year. When population pressures are low, soils
are cultivated at low frequencies and, although
yields are low, production is maintained and
erosion is minimized by regeneration during a long
fallow period. Increasing human densities,
however, lead to intensification of cropping
regimes that may permanently impair regeneration.
One such agricultural area is in the state of Tabasco
in tropical southeastern Mexico. Population
growth of the area has been particularly rapid, due
to both natural increase and immigration encouraged by the petroleum industry in the late
1970s (Tirado, 1978). The subsequent decline in
this industry in the past decade has pushed labor
from that sector back into small scale agriculture.


Wadsworth et al.

dominated by kaolinite with lesser amounts of

gibbsite and hydroxy-interlayered vermiculite.
Subsurface horizons contain only kaolinite and
gibbsite in their clay fractions (Wadsworth, 1987).
The original vegetation of the area, as described by
West et al. (1985), was tropical rain forest. Currently, the vegetation in most areas consists of open
savanna with "islands" of forest and no longer
resembles classical rain forest. Most large trees
have been removed through selective logging, and
the remaining vegetation is bilayered: the overstory
:being fairly continuous and reaching heights of
approximately 10 m, and the understory being open
herbaceous grassland or low (0.5 m) herbs, shrubs
and fugitive pineapple plants. Lianes are occasionally present, and epiphytes are common only on
isolated trees in the savanna. Two previous studies
in Tabasco showed that as little as 3 y of pineapple
cultivation resulted in a large decrease in infiltration rate (Cisneros-Dominguez, 1983) and significant loss of nutrients (Mejia-Nunez et al., 1983).

Materials and methods

Soil sampling sites representing eight ages of

forest fallow (Table 1) were selected with the assistance of a local resident (Asbel Milla) from smallscale, commercial slash-and-burn pineapple
(Ananas comosus L.) farms. Selection was based on
profile characteristics (determined from auger
samples to 2m depth) and uniformity of soil,
agricultural management, and present vegetation.
The sites were all within an area of 5 km 2, and were
in 0.5 to 1 ha fields that had been cleared by hand,
and initially intercropped with corn (Zea mays L.)
and manioc (Manihot esculenta Crantz) and
pineapple followed with 3 to 4y of pineapple
Table 1. Years after clearing and stage in the crop cycle of the
eight sampling locations
Years of clearing

Stage in crop cycle


Cleared 3 m o prior to
1 y fallow after 4-5 y
2 y fallow after 4-5 y
5 y fallow after 4-5 y
10 y fallow after 4-5 y
15 y fallow after 4-5 y
20 y fallow after 4-5 y
50 y fallow, no known


monocrop, then abandonment. Replicate fields

were located for all ages, resulting in 16 fields for
sampling and description. Nine by 16 m grids were
randomly located in each field and 12 surface
samples (0--20cm) were collected in each grid,
giving 192 surface samples for assay. Subsurface
samples were collected from pits dug to 2 m in one
field of each age and the soils were described.
Horizon samples were collected from each pit for
chemical and physical analyses.
Surface and subsurface samples were air dried,
crushed, and their fertility assayed by conventional
procedures. The methods of analyses, with the exceptions noted, are those presented in the
monograph edited by Page et al. (1982). Organic C
(Walkley-Black), N (Kjeldahl), pH (1:1 soil:water
suspension) were determined in all samples. After
these analyses were completed, the surface samples
from each plot were composited to facilitate the
remaining analyses. On these composites available
N was estimated from ammonium production
during a 7 d, 40 C anaerobic incubation; available
P by a modified Bray procedure; exchangeable Ca,
Mg and K were measured in M, pH 7 NH4OAC
extracts; and A1 and H in M KCI extracts.
Nonexchangeable K was estimated using the concentrated H2SO4 extraction of Hunter and Pratt
(1957). Available S was extracted by 0.05M
Ca(H2PO4)2 and by 0.03M NaH2PO 4 in 2 M
CH3COOH and the concentration of S estimated
by inductively coupled plasma spectrometry.


This study evaluated changes in the chemical

characteristics of soils with time after slash-andburn from analyses of samples from 16 carefully
selected fields representing 8 ages, 0 to 50y, of
forest fallow. The sites sampled were from an area
of uniform soils, agricultural management, and
sequence of vegetation. Statistical analyses of the
data were made assuming variance homogeneity
and are presented to provide estimates of variability. The study differed from those of Sanchez et al.
(1983), Aweto (1981) and Aina (1979) which followed changes at specific sites, in that a much
longer rotation was evaluated, only two replications were possible, and site variability was possibly greater. The chemical characteristics evaluated

Forest fallow and fertility of Mexican ultisol



6'0 I I ~ '









Fig. 1. Surface soil content of C and N with time after clearing.
Dashed line is 3 point running average of N content.

were those of primary concern to plant nutrition

and included estimates of organic C, total and
available soil N, available P, Ca, Mg, and S, pH
and exchangeable and reserve K.

Organic matter
The changes in mean surface soil organic C and
Kjeldahl N contents with time are shown in Figure
1. Soil content of both elements declined rapidly
after clearing from their initially high levels to
minimum levels, approximately 20 % lower, at
10y. After this decline, a fairly steady increase
occurred and at 50 y their contents were not different from those at 0 y. Similar rapid declines in


the organic matter content are known to occur with

drastic changes in management (Jenny and
Raychaudhuri, 1960) and particularly in tropical
environments (Nye and Greenland, 1964). The
equally rapid recovery is attributed to reestablishment of the natural vegetation from seeds and
sprouts not killed during the cropping cycle
(Lambert and Arnason, 1986). The C:N ratio
varied little from the mean value of 14.6 during this
As estimated from the smoothed curve of Figure
1 (three-point running average) over 1000kgha -~
of N was lost from these soils in the first 5 to 10y
of the rotation. This loss of C and N is a most
serious consequence of this rotation for not only
does it entail a loss of a valuable resource of organic
matter and available N, but also the loss of nutrient
cations. The pineapple crop produced during the
cultivated period of this rotation was undoubtedly
low yielding and removed less than 100 kgha -~ of
N in the harvested portion (Sanchez, 1976). Assuming dentrification losses of approximately one-half
of the remaining N (Grimme and Juo, 1985) leaves
400 kg ha- ~likely leached with Ca, Mg and K. The
accompanying loss of cations would be equivalent
to 1.4 Mg ha ~of lime. But more importantly, since
cations are lost in relation to their equilibrium
concentrations in the soil solution, the loss of K, a
nutrient already at poverty levels (Vilela and
Ritchey, 1985), would be proportionately greater.
As expected in high organic matter soils, available N measured by anaerobic incubation (Table 2)
was relatively high (Powers, 1980) and increased
with age of secondary forest. The ready availability
of N in these soils supports the loss data measured
by total N differences. Organic constituents were

Table 2. Available N, P and S, exchangeable H, and exchangeable and reserve K of the 0 to 20cm soil layer with time after clearing
Time after



(mg kg- a)








(cmol(+) kg- i )

(mg kg- t )




Numbers followed by the same letter do not differ significantly at P < .05 by Duncan's multiple range test.


Wadsworth et al.

maximum in all pedons in the surface horizon.

Their contents decreased rapidly with depth to a
minimum at approximately 100cm and remained
stable thereafter (Wadsworth, 1987).

Exchangeable cations and p H

Trends with time in exchangeable Ca, Mg, K and
A1 are shown in Figure 2, and the pH, exchangeable
H and nonexchangeable K data are in Table 2. Soil
levels of NH4OAC extractable Ca and Mg did not
differ significantly with time. It is, however, readily
apparent that their levels were much lower in the 0
to 10 y samples than in the 15 to 50 y samples. They
did not vary with time as did those of Nye and
Greenland (1960) and Sanchez (1976) were higher
immediately after burning than their levels in the
old secondary forest. It may be attributed to the
relatively smaller amounts of residues and lower
temperatures reached in burning these as compared
to classical rain forest sites, and to decomposition
of organic matter and leaching losses during the
3 mo period between the burn and sampling of the
"0 y" sites. The exchangeable A1 data, although
somewhat variable, are uniform with time as would
be expected with a very slowly leached cation in
similar but differently managed soils. The
exchangeable K level of the soils of this area is very
low, as is the level of reserve K (Table 2), and
accounts for the uniformity of these characteristics
among the sites. Supply of available K is identified
as second to P as a growth limiting factor and the
most difficult fertility management problem (Vilela
and Ritchey, 1985). The exchangeable H and pH
data show little variation with time after slash-andburn. Neither A1 nor Mn toxicities would be
anticipated at the pH levels observed here
(Kamprath, 1984).

Phosphorus and sulfur

The available P and S levels of these soils are
given in Table 2. The extractable P level of these
soils is "very low" (Thomas and Peaslee, 1973), did
not change appreciably with time, and is identified
as the principle limiting factor to crop production
in these soils. In contrast, extractable S values indicate adequate levels of this nutrient (Reisenauer
et al., 1973) for a range of crops.

cmol (+) kg-'

















Fig. 2. ExchangeableCa, Mg, K and A1of0--20 cmsoilsamples

with time after clearing.

Nutrient soil depth relationships

The distribution of nutrients with depth in these
profiles was measured (Wadsworth, 1987).
Nutrient contents were highest in the surface
horizons, due largely to biocycling and organic
associations (Wadsworth, 1987; Wadsworth et al.,
1988). There was a general decrease in available
nutrients starting in the upper Bt horizon (50--100cm) and continuing to 2 m. Variability in subsurface characteristics was low demonstrating that
changes occurring in the surface were due to treatment rather than natural variability. Magnesium
content differed from that of the other nutrients in
that it increased in the lower Bt horizons. In three
of the pedons there was a slight increase in Ca with
depth. Depths at which cation increases were observed corresponded roughly to the depths at which
low chroma mottles appeared, (Wadsworth et al.,
1988) suggesting transport as nitrate salts and
deposition with nitrate reduction in association
with water table fluctuations.


This study was limited by our inability to distinguish natural variability from differences resulting from management. A reasonable degree of site
uniformity is suggested by the uniform levels of
exchangeable Ai and pH of these sites. Variability

Forest fallow and fertility of Mexican ultisol

o f subsurface characteristics was also relatively
low, further s u p p o r t i n g t r e a t m e n t r a t h e r t h a n
n a t u r a l v a r i a b i l i t y as a p r i n c i p a l source o f the differences observed. T h e a p p a r e n t u n i f o r m i t y o f
available P a n d K levels was a t t r i b u t e d to their low
levels a n d a n a l y t i c a l insensitivity.
Decreases in o r g a n i c C, N, a n d m i n e r a l nutrient
levels with clearing a n d their s u b s e q u e n t increases
with forest r e g r o w t h have been o b s e r v e d by several
w o r k e r s (Jenny a n d R a y c h a u d h u r i , 1960; N y e a n d
G r e e n l a n d , 1960; R a m a k r i s h n a n a n d T o k a y , 1981;
Sanchez, 1976; Sanchez et al., 1982; Sanchez et al.,
1983). The initial effects d e p e n d on the fuel s u p p l y
a n d b u r n intensity, a n d the recovery d u r i n g forest
r e g r o w t h (the fallow p e r i o d ) on r e e s t a b l i s h m e n t o f
the n a t u r a l d e e p - r o o t e d v e g e t a t i o n f r o m s p r o u t s
n o t killed d u r i n g the c r o p p i n g cycle ( L a m b e r t a n d
A r n a s o n , 1986). Intensively w e a t h e r e d soils, such
as the P a l e u d u l t s o f this study, are d e p l e t e d o f
p r i m a r y m i n e r a l s t h a t p r o v i d e n u t r i e n t buffering
a n d recover very slowly f r o m nutrient losses inc u r r e d d u r i n g a p e r i o d o f cultivation. I n this study,
return to the initial low fertility status was essentially c o m p l e t e after 45 y o f fallow.
A g r i c u l t u r a l intensification c o u l d p r o b a b l y be
u n d e r t a k e n in this ecosystem b u t n o t w i t h o u t
changes in a g r i c u l t u r a l technologies. These w o u l d
include different c r o p p i n g a n d weed c o n t r o l p r a c tices, a p p l i c a t i o n s o f P a n d K fertilizers, liming if
o t h e r t h a n acid t o l e r a n t c r o p s were to be grown,
a n d p e r h a p s m i c r o n u t r i e n t fertilization as soil
characteristics were c h a n g e d a n d p r o d u c t i o n levels
increased. R e s e a r c h to d e v e l o p c r o p p i n g systems
like those described by Sanchez a n d Benites (1987)
that are a d a p t e d to the s o c i o e c o n o m i c c o n d i t i o n s
o f the a r e a are essential to the welfare o f these

C a m a r a - C o r d o v a , the f a r m e r s o f F r a n c i s c o R u e d a ,
a n d the state o f T a b a s c o for s u p p o r t in the field.

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