, Volume 230, Issue 2, pp 185-195

Are differences in root growth of nitrogen catch crops important for their ability to reduce soil nitrate-N content, and how can this be measured?

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Abstract

An experiment was made to measure root growth of nitrogen catch crops, to investigate whether differences in root growth among plant species are related to their ability to deplete the soil nitrate-N pool. Large differences were observed in root growth parameters. Monocot species had rooting depth penetration rates in the range of 1.0 to 1.2 mm d−1 °C−1, whereas the non-legume dicot species had rates between 1.5 and 2.3 mm d−1 °C−1. Substantial differences were also found in the lag time from sowing until significant root growth was observed. The estimated temperature sum needed for the crops to reach a rooting depth of 1.0 m varied from 750 d °C for fodder radish to 1375 d °C for Italian ryegrass. The depth distribution of the root system varied strongly, and at a depth of 1.0 m the non-legume dicot species generally had root intensities (number of root intersections m−1 line on the minirhizotrons) 12 times as high as the monocot species.

The amount of nitrate left in the topsoil (0–0.5 m) was only weakly correlated to a few of the measured plant and root parameters, whereas nitrate left in the subsoil (0.5–1.0 m) was clearly correlated to several root parameters. Subsoil nitrate residues were well correlated to root intensity, but showed even stronger correlations to more simple estimates of rooting depth. In the deepest soil layer measured (1.0–1.5 m), the soil water nitrate concentration was reduced from 119 μg L−1 without a catch crop to 61 μg L−1 under Italian ryegrass and to only 1.5 μg L−1 under fodder radish.

The results show that to identify the important differences in root growth among catch crops, root growth must be measured in deep soil layers. In this study, none of the measurements made aboveground or in the upper soil layers were well related to subsoil nitrate depletion.