, Volume 290, Issue 1-2, pp 69-83

Symbiotic N2 fixation by soybean in organic and conventional cropping systems estimated by 15N dilution and 15N natural abundance

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Abstract

Nitrogen (N) is often the most limiting nutrient in organic cropping systems. N2 fixing crops present an important option to improve N supply and to maintain soil fertility. In a field experiment, we investigated whether the lower N fertilization level and higher soil microbial activity in organic than conventional systems affected symbiotic N2 fixation by soybean (Glycine max, var. Maple Arrow) growing in 2004 in plots that were since 1978 under the following systems: bio-dynamic (DYN); bio-organic (ORG); conventional with organic and mineral fertilizers (CON); CON with exclusively mineral fertilizers (MIN); non-fertilized control (NON). We estimated the percentage of legume N derived from the atmosphere (%Ndfa) by the natural abundance (NA) method. For ORG and MIN we additionally applied the enriched 15N isotope dilution method (ID) based on residual mineral and organic 15N labeled fertilizers that were applied in 2003 in microplots installed in ORG and MIN plots. These different enrichment treatments resulted in equal %Ndfa values. The %Ndfa obtained by NA for ORG and MIN was confirmed by the ID method, with similar variation. However, as plant growth was restricted by the microplot frames the NA technique provided more accurate estimates of the quantities of symbiotically fixed N2 (Nfix). At maturity of soybean the %Ndfa ranged from 24 to 54%. It decreased in the order ORG > CON > DYN > NON > MIN, with significantly lowest value for MIN. Corresponding Nfix in above ground plant material ranged from 15 to 26 g N m-2, with a decreasing trend in the order DYN = ORG > CON > MIN > NON. For all treatments, the N withdrawal by harvested grains was greater than Nfix. This shows that at the low to medium %Ndfa, soybeans did not improve the N supply to any system but removed significant amounts of soil N. High-soil N mineralization and/or low-soil P availability may have limited symbiotic N2 fixation.