, Volume 48, Issue 1-3, pp 1-17

The contributions of nitrogen-fixing crop legumes to the productivity of agricultural systems

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Data collated from around the world indicate that, for every tonne of shoot dry matter produced by crop legumes, the symbiotic relationship with rhizobia is responsible for fixing, on average on a whole plant basis (shoots and nodulated roots), the equivalent of 30–40 kg of nitrogen (N). Consequently, factors that directly influence legume growth (e.g. water and nutrient availability, disease incidence and pests) tend to be the main determinants of the amounts of N2 fixed. However, practices that either limit the presence of effective rhizobia in the soil (no inoculation, poor inoculant quality), increase soil concentrations of nitrate (excessive tillage, extended fallows, fertilizer N), or enhance competition for soil mineral N (intercropping legumes with cereals) can also be critical. Much of the N2 fixed by the legume is usually removed at harvest in high-protein seed so that the net residual contributions of fixed N to agricultural soils after the harvest of legumegrain may be relatively small.Nonetheless, the inclusion of legumes in a cropping sequence generally improves the productivity of following crops. Whilesome of these rotational effects may be associated with improvements in availability of N in soils, factors unrelated to N also play an important role. Recent results suggest that one such non-N benefit may be due to the impact on soil biology of hydrogenemitted from nodules as a by-product of N2, fixation.

Presented at the 15th International Congress on Nitrogen Fixation, January 21–26,2007, Cape Town, South Africa