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Title: Interactions between phosphorus fertilisation and soil biota in managed grasslands systems
Author: Massey, Paul Andrew
Awarding Body: Cranfield University
Current Institution: Cranfield University
Date of Award: 2012
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The application of phosphorus (P) fertilisers to grassland systems is a common practice to increase and sustain grassland productivity. This is requisite for satisfying the nutritional needs of grazing animals and increasing dairy and livestock output. The costs of such fertilisers are increasing and the demands for such fertiliser will also most likely rise following governmental targets set in Ireland to increase national agricultural output. However, the application of P fertiliser to grassland systems can contribute to the eutrophication of water-courses, since fertiliser applications can result in the accumulation of P at the soil surface. One potential way to facilitate plant P acquisition in grasslands may be associated with the soil biota. In particular, the soil microbial biomass is recognised as a potential P pool that can provide a source of bioavailable P to the plant community. The soil biota may also facilitate the incorporation of P from the soil surface into the soil profile, since earthworms can actively increase the transport of P-rich soil material from the surface belowground. This project thus aimed to discern how P fertilisation affects microbial biomass nutrient pools and biologically-mediated P incorporation in grassland systems, and how this relates to plant P yields. To investigate this aim, two research questions were proposed: (i) is the soil biota affected by commonly adopted P fertiliser strategies in grassland systems?; (ii) what consequence does this hold for P acquisition by the plant community? An experiment was conducted to examine how the soil biota responded to different rates of inorganic P fertilisation in two grassland sites of contrasting soil types over an 18 month period. This revealed that increasing P fertilisation did not affect microbial biomass P concentrations in the soil. However, an effect was observed upon plant P yield, in which greater plant P yields were obtained proportional to the P fertiliser rate. Two laboratory experiments were conducted to further investigate this lack of effect. These utilised soil from the same grassland sites and examined how nutrient additions to the soil affected microbial biomass nutrient pools and activity. Results from these experiments supported evidence from the field experiment, since the application of P fertiliser did not affect microbial biomass nutrient pools following fertiliser application, and supplementation of carbon (C) + P substrate to the soil did not invoke respiratory responses between P fertiliser treatments. Nevertheless,supplementation with C + nitrogen (N) and C+N+P substrates was found to suppress microbial respiration. This was attributed to greater C assimilation by the microbial community in these particular substrate-induced respiration treatments. In order to investigate biologically-mediated P incorporation, a glasshouse-based mesocosm scale experiment was carried out using two contrasting soils. Bulk soil (1 – 30 cm depth range) was derived from a nutrient poor grassland system, whereas the soil for the 0 – 1 cm depth range was taken from an intensive system that was seven times greater in labile inorganic P concentration. Three treatments were applied to mesocosms in an incomplete factorial design, involving the inclusion of earthworms, different botanical diversities (unplanted, monoculture or mixed plant community) and different fertiliser types (organic or inorganic). The absent factorial combinations involved the application of earthworms to unplanted mesocosms. With respect to the earthworm treatment, results revealed that the presence of earthworms reduced labile P concentrations in the 0 – 1 cm depth range of soil. The presence of different botanical diversities or fertiliser types did not affect microbial biomass nutrient pools, whilst the presence of mixed plant communities did increase plant P yields. However, microbial and nematode community structures were affected in an idiosyncratic manner by both botanical diversity and fertiliser type. This project demonstrated the significance of grassland management regimes in governing microbial biomass P concentrations. In particular, it was revealed that the frequent defoliation of the sward appeared to uncouple the microbial community from both fertiliser inputs and possibly plant P yields. The fact that an increase in plant P yield with increasing P fertilisation was noted in the absence of microbial responses suggests that the soil biota may not be crucial for plant P acquisition in such intensive inorganic-fertiliser based regimes. This suggestion was also supported by the mesocosm experiment, since plant P yields differed between botanical diversities but no effects were observed on microbial biomass P concentrations. Furthermore, this project showed the potential of the earthworm community to reduce P concentrations in the volume of soil which poses the greatest risk to water quality. The collective evidence highlights the need for further understanding of the consequences of inorganic-based fertiliser management systems, since current strategies may not adequately account for management effects on soil biological P cycling.
Supervisor: Creamer, Rachel E.; Ritz, K. Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available