Increasing cattle slurry application to grass-clover leys of different ages did not affect nitrate leaching but increased legacy effect in mixed organic crop rotations

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Organic dairy farms with grass-clover often have a large N surplus, due to biological N fixation and in addition, manure application, which challenges the efforts to reduce N losses. Potential loss pathways include leaching from grass-clover ley and subsequent crops, but if managed appropriately this N legacy effect may result in higher yields in the subsequent crops.

To investigate the fate of the ley phase N surplus including losses of nitrate in grass-clover leys, contribution to the N supply of the subsequent crop, and the contribution from the long-term slurry N application to grass-clover leys to nitrate leaching and yields in subsequent crops.

We quantified nitrate leaching across three years in two six-year crop rotations with two or four years of grass-clover ley and examined legacy effect of the grass-clover ley in relation to short- or long-term N fertilization levels. This was done by measuring water nitrate contents below the root zone combined with water balance modelling.

Nitrate leaching in 1- to 4-yr-old grass-clover leys were not influenced by cattle slurry application of up to 300 kg total-N ha-1 (equivalent to approximately 170 kg available N). Leaching losses were 2 - 19 kg N ha-1 yr-1 across grassland ages and application rates. Arable crops showed correspondingly low nitrate leaching (4–24 kg N ha-1 yr-1) except for barley/peas (74 kg N ha-1 yr-1), where a catch crop was established after autumn mechanical weed control. The legacy effect of fertilization on N yield was found in the first year following cultivation of 2-yr-old grass-clover swards and in both year one and two following cultivation of 4-yr-old grass-clover swards. The legacy effect was generally better predicted by the long-term cumulated fertilizer N application during the last rotation (six years) as compared to the most recent grass-clover N application rate. Nitrate leaching in the arable phase of the mixed crop rotations was not affected by fertilizer application in the ley phase. However, this might depend on catch crop strategy in the arable crops.

Nitrate leaching in dairy crop rotations was not influenced by cattle slurry application. It was found that both the short- and long-term slurry application history were able to explain the legacy effect and of those, the long-term was the best predictor.

The study shows that N leaching reduction targets can be met in an organic dairy crop rotation when attention is paid to the full crop rotation and utilization of short- and long-term legacy effects of slurry application.
Artikelnummer 109233
TidsskriftField Crops Research
Antal sider9
StatusUdgivet - 1 feb. 2024


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