The measurement of soil fungal:bacterial biomass ratios as an indicator of ecosystem self-regulation in temperate meadow grasslands
There is much interest in the development of agricultural land management strategies aimed at enhancing reliance on ecosystem self-regulation rather than on artificial inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides. This study tested the usefulness of measures of soil microbial biomass and fungal:bacterial biomass ratios as indicators of effective conversion from an intensive grassland system, reliant mainly on fertilisers for crop nutrition, to a low-input system reliant mainly on self-regulation through soil biological pathways of nutrient turnover. Analysis of soils from a wide range of meadow grassland sites in northern England, along a gradient of long-term management intensity, showed that fungal:bacterial biomass ratios (measured by phospholipid fatty acid analysis; PLFA) were consistently and significantly higher in the unfertilised than the fertilised grasslands. There was also some evidence that microbial biomass, measured by chloroform fumigation and total PLFA, was higher in the unfertilised than in the fertilised grasslands. It was also found that levels of inorganic nitrogen (N), in particular nitrate-N, were significantly higher in the fertilised than in the unfertilised grasslands. However, microbial activity, measured as basal respiration, did not differ between the sites. A field manipulation trial was conducted to determine whether the reinstatement of traditional management on an improved mesotrophic grassland, for 6 years, resulted in similar changes in the soil microbial community. It was found that neither the cessation of fertiliser applications nor changes in cutting and grazing management significantly affected soil microbial biomass or the fungal:bacterial biomass ratio. It is suggested that the lack of effects on the soil microbial community may be related to high residual fertility caused by retention of fertiliser N in the soil. On the basis of these results it is recommended that following the reinstatement of low-input management, the measurement of a significant increase in the soil fungal:bacterial biomass ratio, and perhaps total microbial biomass, may be an indicator of successful conversion to a grassland system reliant of self-regulation.
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