Manipulation of N mineralisation/immobilisation dynamics to investigate poor fertiliser recovery in improved grass pasture on ombrotrophic peat
The spring application of fertiliser N often fails to stimulate grass growth in improved grass pastures on peaty soils. Fertiliser utilisation efficiencies under these conditions have been found to be low, suggesting that available N is not taken up by the plant. Previous work has suggested that in this type of system, the soil microbial biomass may function as a strong sink for fertiliser N and therefore limit plant growth in the Spring. A series of laboratory based experiments utilising reconstituted and intact cores, and homogenised peat, was set up to identify the factors controlling the competition between N uptake by plants and N immobilisation by soil microorganisms following the addition of fertiliser N to peat. Microbial biomass N concentrations were determined in order to quantify the amount of N present in the microbial pool. The use of 15N labelled fertilisers and selective biocides provides a powerful tool with which to characterise the microbial population responsible for the immobilisation of N under these conditions. Improvement of a grass pasture at Sletill Hill has resulted in the formation of a distinct layer comprised of partially decomposed roots, underneath the surface vegetation and it was within this layer, that microbial immobilisation of fertiliser N was found to occur. Approximately 30% of applied N (equivalent to ca 50 kgN ha-1) was found within the microbial biomass in this layer, 30 days after the addition of fertiliser N. Intact cores were removed from Sletill Hill and maintained under controlled abiotic conditions. Water table level and temperature were found to be important in controlling the extent of microbial immobilisation of applied N. Lowering the water table level increased the quantity of N present in plant and microbial N pools, particularly at lower temperatures (8°C). At higher temperatures (20°C), plant uptake of N tended to be less due to a restriction on plant growth caused by 'droughty' soil conditions.