Interactions between white clover and ryegrass under contrasting nitrogen availability: N2 fixation, N fertilizer recovery, N transfer and water use efficiency

Research paper by H. Høgh-Jensen, J.K. Schjoerring

Indexed on: 01 Dec '97Published on: 01 Dec '97Published in: Plant and soil


Seasonal variation in N2 fixation, N transfer from clover to ryegrass, and soil N absorption in white clover–ryegrass swards were investigated under field conditions over three consecutive years. The plots were established with different seeding ratios of clover and ryegrass and contrasting fertilizer N ranging from 3 to 72 kg ha-1 year-1.An initially poor clover population needed at least one growing season to reach the same yield output as an initially well established clover population. The clover content of the sward decreased by the annual application of 72 kg N ha-1 but not by smaller N dressings.The total amount of atmospherically derived N in clover growing in mixture with ryegrass was, on average over the three years equal to 83, 71, 68 and 60 kg N ha-1 for the treatments of 3, 24, 48 and 72 kg N ha-1, respectively. The proportion of atmospherically derived N declined with increasing N application, but never became smaller than 80% of total clover N. The proportion of atmospherically derived N in a pure stand white clover amounted to 60–80% of the total N content, equivalent to 109, 110, 103 and 90 kg N ha-1 for the treatments of 3, 24, 48 and 72 kg N ha-1, respectively.Only small amounts of atmospherically derived N was transferred to the associated ryegrass during the first production year, while in each of the following years up to 21 kg ha-1 was transferred. The average amount of N transferred from clover to ryegrass was equivalent to 3, 16 and 31% of the N accumulated in ryegrass in the first, second and third production year, respectively. Expressed relative to the total amount of fixed N2 in the clover–ryegrass mixture, the transfer amounted to 3, 17 and 22% in the first, second and third production year, respectively. Thus transfer of atmospherically derived N from clover contributed significantly to the N economy of the associated ryegrass.The clover–ryegrass mixture absorbed constantly higher amount of soil derived N than the pure stands of the two species. Only 11% of the total accumulated fertilizer N and soil derived N in the mixture was contained within the clover component. Lower water use efficiencies for the plants grown in mixture compared to pure stands were mainly related to the increased N uptake in the mixture, with the subsequent increase in growth compared to the pure stands.It is concluded that positive interactions between clover and ryegrass growing in mixture ensure a more efficient fixation of atmospheric N2 and absorption of fertilizer N and soil derived N than pure stands of the same species.