Crop and Pasture Science Crop and Pasture Science Society
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Nitrogen fixation in grazed and ungrazed subterranean clover pasture in south-west Australia assessed by the 15N natural abundance technique

P Sanford, JS Pate, MJ Unkovich and AN Thompson

Australian Journal of Agricultural Research 46(7) 1427 - 1443
Published: 1995


The progress of N2 fixation by subterranean clover (Trifolium subterraneum L.) was followed throughout a growing season in adjacent grazed and ungrazed portions of a pasture at Mount Barker, W.A. Proportions of plant nitrogen derived from the atmosphere (%Ndfa) were determined at a sequence of sampling times using the 15N natural abundance technique with capeweed (Arctotheca calendula L.) as non-fixing reference species. Cumulative yields of fixed N by above ground biomass of clover were determined from %Ndfa values, concurrent estimates of dry matter (DM) yields, and percentage nitrogen in clover shoot DM. Seasonal DM yields of clover, capeweed and mixed grasses were in the approximate ratio 60 : 20: 20. Total herbage yields were 11.8 and 7.8 t ha-1 for the grazed and ungrazed swards respectively. Poorer performance of the latter was attributed to shading by taller grasses late in the season. Starting from a low value of 58%, Ndfa of the ungrazed sward became uniformly high (73-88%) for the rest of the season. Clover of the more productive grazed sward behaved similarly except for a significant mid winter depression to 55%Ndfa, probably caused by excessive defoliation through overgrazing. Fixed N recovered from clover shoot biomass was 103 and 188 kg N ha-1 for ungrazed and grazed pasture respectively. Mineral N under the grazed sward first consisted mostly of nitrate, and then predominantly of ammonium. Soil-derived N was utilized roughly equally by clover, grasses and capeweed and a field study of %Ndfa of subterranean clover grown in varying proportion with either the main pasture grass (Lolium rigidum Gaudin) or capeweed indicated the grass to be the more effective competitor for soil N against the clover. The data suggested that reliable estimates of seasonal accumulation of fixed N by pastures would be obtained from assessments of cumulative biomass yield of clover N with a single determination of %Ndfa at peak productivity in mid to late spring.

Keywords: N2 fixation; subterranean clover; 15N natural abundance; soil mineral N uptake; capeweed; annual grasses; grazed pasture

© CSIRO 1995

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