Soil fertility management and cowpea production in the semiarid tropics
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Cowpea (Vigna unguiculata [L.] Walp.) is an important grain legume in the semiarid zone of West Africa as it is a major source of dietary protein for the people. It is usually grown as an intercrop with the major cereals, namely millet and sorghum. Despite its importance, its yields are very low due to several constraints including poor soil, insect pests, and drought. The soils in semiarid West Africa are inherently low in nitrogen and phosphorus. Soil, water, and nutrient management practices are inadequate to sustain food production and to meet the food requirements of the fast growing population. Research results show that proper management of organic amendments such as crop residues and manure, which are essential complements to mineral phosphorus fertilizers, can increase yields of cowpea and associated cereals more than three fold. Direct application of indigenous phosphate rocks can be an economical alternative to the use of imported, more expensive soluble phosphorus fertilizers for cowpea production in the region. The agronomic effectiveness of indigenous phosphate rock is about 50% compared to the imported single super phosphate. Furthermore, when the unreactive phosphate rocks are partially acidulated at 50%, their agronomic effectiveness can increase to more than 70%. Studies on cereal-cowpea rotation revealed that yields of cereals succeeding cowpea could, in some cases, double compared to continuous cereal cultivation. With efficient soil fertility management, cowpea can fix up to 88 kgN/ha and this results in an increase of nitrogen use efficiency on the succeeding cereal crop from 20% in the continuous cereal monoculture to 28% when cereals are in rotation with cowpea. Furthermore, the use of soil nitrogen increased from 39 kg N/ha in the continuous cereal monoculture to 62 kg N/ha in the rotation systems. Future research needs to focus on understanding the factors affecting phosphorus uptake from different sources of natural rock phosphate. There is also a need to quantify the below-ground nitrogen fixed by different cowpea cultivars. The increase of cowpea productivity in the cropping systems in this region will improve the nutrition of people, increase the feed quantity and quality for livestock, and contribute to soil fertility maintenance. This should contribute to reduction in poverty and environmental degradation.
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