Nitrate and ammonium nitrogen have dramatically different impacts on soil biology and possible pathogens. Some pathogens are enhanced by nitrate and suppressed by ammonium. Others are the exact opposite. Most (but not all) soil-borne pathogens are enhanced by the presence of nitrate. This corresponds to the impact of reduced vs oxidized environments, since ammonium is the reduced form of nitrogen, and nitrate is the oxidized form of nitrogen. In general, reduced environments are very disease suppressive, and oxidized environments are disease enhancing.
I have had many discussion about this topic with Don Huber, inlcuding this one on a podcast interview.
John: What are the impacts of nitrogen and nitrogen applications on developing disease-suppressive soils?
Don: Most of your soil organisms are hungry for two things. One of them is nitrogen. The other is carbon. When you change either of those nutrients, you see tremendous stimulation of a lot of organisms in the soil, depending on what your source of nitrogen is.
One of their primary pathogens on a lot of vegetable crops in Florida is Fusarium oxysporum. It’s a vascular Fusarium. Growers can get pretty much complete control by using nitrate nitrogen and calcium. If they can stimulate nitrification, or if they apply nitrate nitrogen, potassium nitrate, or calcium nitrate—and also use some liming (lime = an oxidizer) to get their pH up—they have fairly effective control of Fusarium wilt diseases.
With tobacco, where we use fumigation to control some of the soil-borne diseases, you should have at least 30 percent of your nitrogen as nitrate nitrogen. If you don’t—if the plant is taking up all ammonium nitrogen—you can get into a carbon deficit because the plant detoxifies the nitrate or the ammonium nitrogen by combining with photosynthate from photosynthesis; that provides the carbon base for those amino acids. Then the nitrogen is translocated as the amino acid. If you don’t have enough nitrate nitrogen present to buffer against an ammonium source—if you’re going to get fumigation, because our soil fumigants tend to knock out nitrifying organisms—or if you don’t get nitrification there, it stabilizes in the ammonium form. It can be a drain on the carbon and the energy availability until that ammonium is detoxified and utilized by the plant.
John: I’m thinking about your description of how many soil-borne pathogens—soil-borne fungi such as Fusarium and Verticillium, for example—are dependent on oxidizing manganese and limiting manganese absorption by the plant. If that were the case, what would be the impact of adding ammonium to such an ecosystem—where you have a reduced form of nitrogen? What would the impact of the ammonium be on these soil-borne pathogens?
Don: On that group of pathogens, you will see a tremendous reduction in disease—with the ammonium nutrition. I wrote a chapter in one of the annual reviews on the impact of the form of nitrogen. You’ll see a tremendous benefit in different organisms by the form of nitrogen that the plant is predominantly supplied with. If you modify the environment so that those soil microorganisms make those conversions, you’ll see that the form of nitrogen will be available for the plant.
So, it’s important that you have both the management tools as well as the form. Most of our soil’s nitrification takes place very rapidly, so you need to do something to inhibit nitrification. We can do it biologically—we can modify the speed of that reaction so that we can increase the amount of nitrogen in nitrate or ammonium. When it’s taking ammonium nitrogen, you have a reducing environment. That reducing environment is favoring manganese-reducing organisms so that there will almost always be an increase in manganese availability for the plant—when you predominantly use an ammonium form of nitrogen. The more rapid, oxidative form is the nitrate source of nitrogen.