Plant and Soil

, Volume 185, Issue 2, pp 281–291

Fine root demography in alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.)

  • Gregory D. Goins
  • Michael P. Russelle

DOI: 10.1007/BF02257534

Cite this article as:
Goins, G.D. & Russelle, M.P. Plant Soil (1996) 185: 281. doi:10.1007/BF02257534


In perennial forages like alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.), repeated herbage removal may alter root production and mortality which, in turn, could affect deposition of fixed N in soil. Our objective was to determine the extent and patterns of fine-diameter root production and loss during the year of alfalfa stand establishment. The experiment was conducted on a loamy sand soil (Udorthentic Haploboroll) in Minnesota, USA, using horizontally installed minirhizotrons placed directly under the seeded rows at 10, 20, and 40 cm depths in four replicate blocks. We seeded four alfalfa germplasms that differed in N2 fixation capacity and root system architecture: Agate alfalfa, a winter hardy commercially-available cultivar; Ineffective Agate, which is a non-N2-fixing near isoline of Agate; a new germplasm that has few fibrous roots and strong tap-rooted traits; and a new germplasm that has many fibrous roots and a strongly branched root system architecture. Video images collected biweekly throughout the initial growing season were processed using C-MAP-ROOTS software.

More than one-half of all fine roots in the upper 20 cm were produced during the first 7 weeks of growth. Root production was similar among germplasms, except that the highly fibrous, branch-rooted germplasm produced 29% more fine roots at 20 cm than other germplasms. In all germplasms, about 7% of the fine roots at each depth developed into secondarily thickened roots. By the end of the first growing season, greatest fine root mortality had occurred in the uppermost depth (48%), and least occurred at 40 cm (36%). Survival of contemporaneous root cohorts was not related to soil depth in a simple fashion, although all survivorship curves could be described using only five rates of exponential decline. There was a significant reduction in fine root mortality before the first herbage harvest, followed by a pronounced loss (average 22%) of fine roots at the 10- and 20-cm depths in the 2-week period following herbage removal. Median life spans of these early-season cohorts ranged from 58 to 131 days, based on fitted exponential equations. At all depths, fine roots produced in the 4 weeks before harvest (early- to mid-August) tended to have shorter median life spans than early-season cohorts. Similar patterns of fine root mortality did not occur at the second harvest. Germplasms differed in the pattern, but not the ultimate extent, of fine root mortality. Fine root turnover during the first year of alfalfa establishment in this experiment released an estimated 830 kg C ha−1 and 60 kg N ha−1, with no differences due to N2 fixation capacity or root system architecture.

Key words

alfalfa Medicago sativa L. root decomposition root turnover root production minirhizotron 

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gregory D. Goins
    • 1
  • Michael P. Russelle
    • 1
  1. 1.USDA-Agricultural Research Service and Dept. of Soil, Water, and Climate, 439 Borlaug HallUniv. of MinnesotaSt. PaulUSA
  2. 2.Advanced Life Support/Space Biology, Dynamac Corporation, Mail Code: DYN-3, Kennedy Space CenterUSA

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