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Rhizobium as a factor in the re-establishment of legume-based pastures on clay soils of the wheat belt of north-western New South Wales

A. M. Bowman, D. M. Hebb, D. J. Munnich and J. Brockwell

Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 38(6) 555 - 566
Published: 1998


Summary. Populations of Rhizobium meliloti in self-mulching clay soils (Vertisols) at 48 sites on 27 properties in north-western New South Wales were classified according to number and ability to fix nitrogen with several species of Medicago. Rhizobia were counted using serial dilution, nodulation frequency, plant infection tests. Abilities of the soil populations to fix nitrogen were determined in the laboratory with whole-soil inoculation of Medicago seedlings in test tubes with shoots exposed to the atmosphere and roots within the tubes under bacteriological control, and in the field using a technique based on the natural abundance of 15N in the soil. The majority of soils contained >1000 cells of R. meliloti per gram. The major component of those populations fixed nitrogen with lucerne (Medicago sativa) and some components of some soils also fixed nitrogen with M. polymorpha, M. scutellata, M. littoralis, M. tornata, M. laciniata and Trigonella suavissima. However, a number of soils were located which contained few if any rhizobia effective in nitrogen fixation with M. polymorpha. Overall, the effectiveness of nitrogen fixation of the naturally occurring populations of R. meliloti in association with M. polymorpha, M. scutellata, M. littoralis and M. tornata was only 46% of the effectiveness of standard strains. At one particular site, where 10 lines of annual Medicago spp. were growing experimentally, fixed nitrogen as a proportion of shoot nitrogen averaged only 28%. At that site, there were no effective rhizobia for M. scutellata and it was wholly dependent on the soil as the source of its nitrogen.

The results are discussed in relation to the need for a substantial input of legume nitrogen for restoring the natural fertility of self-mulching clay soils in degraded wheat lands of north-western New South Wales. It is suggested that lucerne, or perhaps other perennial Medicago spp., might fill this role better than annual medics such as M. polymorpha and M. scutellata that are more dependent than lucerne on specific strains of R. meliloti to meet their requirements for symbiotic nitrogen fixation.

© CSIRO 1998

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