Nitrogen dynamics of organic farming in a crop rotation based on red clover (Trifolium pratense) leys

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In agricultural systems which rely on organic sources of nitrogen (N), of which the primary source is biological N fixation (BNF), it is extremely important to use N as efficiently as possible with minimal losses to the environment. The amount of N through BNF should be maximised and the availability of the residual N after legumes should be synchronised to the subsequent plant needs in the crop rotation. Six field experiments in three locations in Finland were conducted in 1994-2006 to determine the productivity and amount of BNF in red clover-grass leys of different ages. The residual effects of the leys for subsequent cereals as well as the N leaching risk were studied by field measurements and by simulation using the CoupModel. N use efficiency (NUE) and N balances were also calculated.

The yields of red clover-grass leys were highest in the two-year-old leys (6700 kg/ha) under study, but the differences between 2- and 3-year old leys were not high in most cases. BNF (90 kg/ha in harvested biomass) correlated strongly with red clover dry matter yield, as the proportion of red clover N derived from the atmosphere (>85%) was high in our conditions of organically farmed field with low soil mineral N. A red clover content of over 40 % in dry matter is targeted to avoid negative N-balances and to gain N for the subsequent crop. Surprisingly, the leys had no significant effect on the yields and N uptake of the two subsequent cereals (winter rye or spring wheat, followed by spring oats).

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On the other hand, yield and C:N of leys, as well as BNF-N and total-N incorporated into the soil influenced on subsequent cereal yields. NUE of cereals from incorporated ley crop residues was rather high, varying from 30 % to 80 % (mean 48 %). The mineral N content of soil in the profile of 0-90 cm was low, mainly 15-30 kg/ha. Simulations of N dynamics by CoupModel functioned satisfactorily and is considered a useful tool to estimate N flows in cropping systems relying on organic N sources. Understanding the long-term influence of cultivation history and soil properties on N dynamics remains to be a challenge to further research.

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