A model (ROTATE) of the nitrogen (N) cycle during the tree and crop phases of fallow systems [Robertson, 1994] was used to determine the primary factors influencing longterm crop yields. The model simulated the expected patterns of increase in old (recalcitrant) soil organic N during tree rotations and their decrease under continuous cropping. After 3–4 fallow cycles an equilibrium soil organic N content is reached, where N losses by crop removal are balanced by N gains by the trees (either by fixation or pumping from depth) plus small inputs in rain. The rotation period has two variable components; the cycle length (tree plus crop period) and the fraction of years in each cycle occupied by trees (1 = sole trees, 0 = sole crops). Both components have optima determined by the time taken for the trees to increase the old soil organic N pool to an optimal (but not maximal) size. This optimum exists because the rate of increase in old organic N slows as the tree fallow progresses and a time is reached (often soon after the trees reach full size) when the benefits of further improvements in soil fertility are outweighed by crop yield foregone. In the example chosen of Acacia/sorghum in the Sahel, the optimum cycle seemed to be about 50 years with half of the time in trees. The optimum fallow period is shortened by growing fast-growing trees, and the benefit of fallow periods are greatest when (i) a large proportion of the N in litter (above and belowground) is transferred to the recalcitrant soil pool, and (ii) the trees attain a large size with correspondingly large annual additions of N to the soil.
Agroforestry Systems (1995) 29 (2) 113-132 [DOI: 10.1007/BF00704881]