Maize (Zea mays
) is the most important staple crop grown in East Africa [1
]. The grains form an important part of the food and feed system of the region providing more than 19% of the dietary calorie supply for the population [2
] and contributing 30%−50% of the household income of smallholder farmers, who produce about 90% of the maize. The per capita annual consumption of maize grain in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda amounts to 103, 73, and 31 kg, respectively [3
]. Maize is also a major constituent of animal feeds, and a growing demand for animal products by a rapidly growing urban middle class is further driving regional maize demand [4
]. Currently, Tanzania alone uses up to 800,000 MT of maize as animal feeds, while Kenya and Uganda use only about 350,000 [5
] and 260,000 MT [6
Maize in East Africa is predominantly grown in smallholder farms under rainfed conditions with low fertilizer input. The dependence on rainfall increases the vulnerability of these farming systems to climate variability [7
]. Accordingly, a high spatial–temporal variability in rainfall increasingly affects maize yields, causing both food insecurity and reduced income of rural households [8
In contrast, wetlands are highly productive, potentially arable, and low-drought-risk areas that could be used to enhance crop production [9
]. They store soil moisture for long periods, thus providing residual moisture for crop growth during the dry season, when no rainfed crops can be grown in upland fields [10
]. Wetlands also act as sinks where soil organic matter and nutrients accumulate, making wetland soils more fertile and productive than those of the surrounding uplands [11
]. Accordingly, shifting crop production from uplands to wetlands constitutes an important coping mechanism for smallholder farmers against yield losses caused by drought and declining soil fertility. However, wetlands must be farmed with caution. Over-exploitation can undermine important wetland functions related to other non-provisioning ecosystem services [12
]. Unregulated clearing and draining of wetlands for expanding agricultural production areas and the associated modification of hydrological regimes and nutrient fluxes can lead to irreversible wetland degradation. Pollution resulting from overuse of fertilizers and pesticides can adversely impact natural biota (and fish) and undermine the ecological functions of many wetlands.
In Uganda, wetlands cover an estimated 3 million hectares [14
]. Seventy five percent of these wetlands are seasonal, meaning that they may flood during the wet season, while conserving sufficient soil moisture to sustain crop production during the dry season [14
]. Currently, only about 7% (157,000 ha) of the seasonal wetlands in Uganda are cropped [14
], leaving some 2 million hectares for potential future agricultural use. The agricultural census of 2010 showed that 2.4 million MT of maize grain is produced in Uganda from an area of 1.1 million hectares annually [15
]. This may be increased significantly with a reasonable expansion of the agricultural use of wetland. Since seasonal wetlands are dispersed throughout the country and occur in almost all regions of Uganda, a large number of rural agricultural households could benefit from cultivating dry season maize on residual soil moisture in inland valley wetlands.
Occasionally, smallholder farmers in Uganda opt for cultivating maize in wetland margins (fringe zones), although yield losses occur due to drought or insufficient soil moisture. Rarely do farmers cultivate the wetter middle or center zones of valley wetlands. The farmers’ decision to cultivate wetlands is often guided by indigenous knowledge rather than policy recommendations as technical guidelines for the sustainable use of wetlands are not available [16
]. Few studies have attempted to assess the suitability of seasonal wetlands for crop intensification. Little or no attention has been paid to the agronomic relevance of the different hydrological positions of the wetlands (fringe, middle, and center). A zonal differentiation, however, is likely to determine wetland suitability (grain yield and yield stability) since soil attributes and water dynamics greatly vary between these positions [9
]. In this study, we investigated the suitability of the different hydrological positions of an inland valley wetland in Central Uganda for producing dry season maize and tested its response to different crop management options including mineral and organic fertilizers. In Uganda, availability of and farmers’ access to mineral fertilizers is limited [17
], especially in rural areas where application rates are <15 kg N ha−1
. Organic amendments, on the other hand, are widely available, though highly variable in quality. Applications rates for organic amendments in maize are <100 kg N ha−1
]. We also estimated the grain yield gain of improved crop management over the farmer’s practice at different hydrological positions. Findings from this study may guide the development of inland valley wetlands for crop production in East Africa.
2. Materials and Methods
2.1. Description of the Experimental Site
The experiments were conducted for three seasons; December 2014 to April 2015, December 2015 to April 2016, and June to October 2016, in an inland valley at Nakyesasa village located within the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) campus in Namulonge, Uganda (00°31.12′ N, 32°38.34′ E, 1160 m above sea level). Mean annual precipitation at NaCRRI is 1275 mm, with two distinct rainy and dry seasons. December, January, and February are dry months (long dry season), followed by short rains in March, April, and May. June and July are also generally dry (short dry season), while August, September, October, and November are the wettest (long rains). Based on data from 2004 to 2012, the mean pentad minimum and maximum temperatures at NaCRRI is 16.4 and 29.0 °C, respectively, while the variation in daylight hours within a year is less than five minutes per day [18
]. In the course of the experiment, rainfall and temperature data were collected and are presented in Figure 1
. The data are presented to correspond with the different maize growth stages as described by [19
]. The minimum temperature in all the years ranged from 14 to 20 °C, while the maximum temperature ranged from 27 to 34 °C. Average relative humidity in 2014, 2015, and 2016 ranged from 45%–82%, 62%–82%, and 65%–80%, respectively.
The experimental site was partitioned into three hydrological positions selected to correspond to three physical positions within the inland valley wetland (fringe, middle, and center), and the positions differed in soil attributes and water availability (Figure 2
). The hydrological positions/sites were separated from each other by 20 m wide strips of natural (indigenous) vegetation, which remained undisturbed throughout the duration of the experiments.
In the Namulonge inland valley, loamy soils prevail, with a predominance of silty loam Gleysols [20
]. Other physical soil properties varied across the hydrological positions. The soil organic carbon contents were 1.6%, 2.1%, and 2.5% in the fringe, middle, and center positions, respectively, while the soil bulk density was 1.3, 1.2, and 1.1 g cm−3
, in that order. Figure 3
shows soil moisture at different hydrological positions of the inland valley.
2.2. Experimental Design and Setup
The field trial was set up as a one-factorial randomized complete block design (RCBD) comprising six treatments of different crop management options (Table 1
) replicated four times and repeated at each of the three hydrological positions/sites of the inland valley, with a common layout across positions/sites. The trials were repeated over three years on the same plots potentially resulting in cumulative treatment effects. The area of the individual experimental plots was 36 m² (6 m by 6 m) separated on all sides by a 1 m tilled and non-cropped border. All experimental plots were tilled twice by hand hoe. The first stage of tilling was done to a depth of about 20 cm to break the hard surface and remove deep rooted weeds. During the second stage of tilling, large clods of soil were broken down into finer particles and the field was levelled, ready for seeding.
Experimental plots to be treated with green manure were then sown with Lablab purpureus at a plant-to plant spacing of 50 cm × 50 cm corresponding to a plant population of 40,000 plants ha−1. Lablab was grown for two months and incorporated into the soil one week before seeding maize. Before soil incorporation, the above-ground Lablab biomass was harvested, dried, weighed, and analyzed for N, P, and K contents. The moisture content of the Lablab was determined gravimetrically later. The moisture and N contents were used to compute the amount of fresh green manure to apply per plot to achieve the target of 60 kg N ha−1. The NPK contents of lablab were 4.2:0.2:2.5 in 2014, 4.5:0.3:3.0 in 2015 and 4.6:0.2:2.2 in 2016. In a few plots, biomass accumulation by Lablab was insufficient to supply 60 kg N ha−1. In these cases, Lablab addition was complemented with fresh biomass of Lablab grown ex situ in an adjacent field plot during the same period.
Poultry manure was applied one week after maize seeding. It was made up of partially composted bedding material (coffee husks) and manure from birds used in a commercial poultry facility (UgaChick Poultry Breeders in Uganda). Before application, a composite sample of the manure was analyzed for its N, P, K, and moisture contents. The NPK contents of the poultry manure determined on a dry weight basis were 1.4:0.3:1.4 in 2014, 1.9:0.4:1.3 in 2015 and 2.3:0.5:1.5 in 2016. The N and moisture contents of the poultry manure were used to calculate the manure application rate to supply 60 kg N ha−1. The application rate varied between different batches of poultry manure because of differences in N and moisture contents. The poultry manure was uniformly spread and worked into the soil using hand hoes. The intensive organic fertilizer treatment (120 kg N ha−1) consisted of a combined application of Lablab and poultry manure, each providing 60 kg N ha−1, while the treatment with a low rate of manure was made up of only Lablab green manure at 60 kg N ha−1.
After the incorporation of organic amendments, all plots were finely tilled with hand hoes and seeded with the medium duration (120 days) hybrid maize variety “Longe-10H” at a 45 cm × 45 cm spacing at two kernels per hill. These were later thinned to a final plant density of five plants m−2
. All treatments were weeded twice by hand hoe at the six- and 12-leaf stages, except for the control (farmer’s practice), which was weeded only once at the six-leaf stage. The treatment with low fertilizer application consisted of urea (60:0:0 kg NPK ha−1
), while the high mineral fertilizer treatment consisted of a combination of urea, triple super phosphate (TSP), and Potassium chloride (KCl) providing 120, 60, and 60 kg of N, P, K ha−1
, respectively. Urea was applied in two split applications with 60% N applied basally at seeding and 40% as top dressing at the six-leaf stage [19
]. TSP and KCl were all basally applied [21
]. No pesticides were used in the trials.
Measurements of plant height and relative leaf chlorophyll content (chlorophyll-meter value) were taken at tasseling from 30 plants randomly selected from the six inner rows of each plot. A Minolta SPAD-502 chlorophyll meter (Konica-Minolta, Japan) was used to measure the relative leaf chlorophyll content. Measurements were taken on the first fully expanded leaf from the top, halfway between the leaf tip and collar, and midway between the leaf midrib and edge. At tasseling, ten plants were selected randomly from the third and fourth inner rows of each plot and harvested at ground level (stem base), chopped, and dried to a constant weight at 70 °C to determine dry matter content.
Ears were harvested from 40 maize plants (corresponding to 8 m2), taken from the eight inner rows of each plot, to assess grain yield. The grain yield of each plot was determined by shelling and taking the grain weight of all ears harvested. The grain yield was adjusted to 15.5% moisture content.
The grain yield gain of improved crop management was computed as the difference between yield achieved under the farmer’s practice and yield under the other crop management options. These were computed separately for each crop management option and hydrological position. Treatment means within positions were averaged for the years and used to compute zonal grain yield gains.
Agronomic N-use efficiency (aNUE) was calculated as
was the grain yield obtained with an applied N rate of Nr
, while N0 was grain yield without N fertilizer [22
2.4. Statistical Analysis
Statistical analysis was done using the Statistical Tool for Agricultural Research (IRRI, Los Banos, Philippines) [23
]. Data were subjected to a combined analysis of variance (ANOVA) in a randomized complete block design (RCBD), where years (seasons) were considered random effects while treatments and hydrological positions were taken as fixed effects. The three hydrological positions were taken as independent experimental locations because of differences in soil attributes and prevailing hydrological conditions. Means were separated by Fisher’s protected least significant difference (LSD).
Inland valley wetlands can potentially be used to produce maize outside of the main rainy cropping season. At 3.4 t ha−1, average productivity of maize in the inland valley exceeded the national average of largely upland maize by 42%. The center of the inland valley with a higher soil moisture content than the other positions showed the greatest potential for producing dry season maize, especially when rainfall was deficient. The grain yield at risk due to rainfall deficiency was high at the fringe and middle hydrological positions—hence the need for occasional supplementary irrigation. Repeated application of organic fertilizers at high rates by combining green manure (L. purpureus) and poultry manure can produce comparable maize grain and stover yields as high mineral N fertilizer rates. Taken together, therefore, these results suggest that inland valley wetlands can be utilized to grow maize during the dry season, thereby, allowing farmers to squeeze in more harvests and contribute to farm income generation and regional food security. However, for sustainability, the cultivation of inland wetlands must be guided by sound policies and technical guidelines.