N2 fixation and nitrogen allocation to above and below ground plant parts in red clover-grasslands

Research paper by Kerstin Huss-Danell, Eugenia Chaia, Georg Carlsson

Indexed on: 04 Sep '07Published on: 04 Sep '07Published in: Plant and soil


Leys, used for grazing or production of forage to be conserved as silage or hay, are very important crops in northern areas. In order to measure the N2 fixation in leys of varying ages and during different parts of the season, detailed measurements were taken of yield, N2 fixation and the amounts of N remaining in the field after harvesting red clover (Trifolium pratense L.)-grass leys at a site in northern Sweden, where they are generally harvested twice per growing season. Entire plants, including stubble and roots, were sampled at the time of first and second harvest and, in addition, at the end of the growing season in three neighbouring fields, carrying a first, a second and a third year ley, respectively. N2 fixation was measured by both 15N isotope dilution (ID) and 15N natural abundance (NA) methods. The proportion of clover dry matter (DM) in the stands increased from the first to the second harvest, but the grasses dominated throughout the entire season, especially below ground. The N concentrations, in both herbage and whole plants, were about twice as high in the clover as in the grasses. Seasonal variations in N concentrations were minor, and total N contents followed the same trends as DM. The clover acquired nearly all of its N from N2 fixation: the proportion of N in clover herbage derived from N2 fixation was often >0.8 throughout the season. The variations in the amounts of N2 fixed during the course of the season corresponded well to the seasonal changes in clover biomass. Amounts of fixed N2 allocated to clover herbage during the whole season were in the range 4 to 6 g N m−2 in this unusually rainy year. Calculations of daily N allocation rates to herbage showed that N uptake rates were similar, and high, in grasses during May–June and July–August, while N2 fixation rates in clover were about 10-fold as high in July–August as in May–June, reflecting the need for N in clover growth. The proportion of N remaining in clover stubble and roots after the first and second harvests was about 60 and 25%, respectively, while about 60% of the N in grasses remained in stubble and roots after both harvests. The considerable amounts of biomass and N that were left in field after harvesting red clover-grass leys are important for re-growth of the plants and provide substantial N fertilization for the next crop in the crop rotation.