Accumulation of biologically fixed nitrogen by legumes cultivated as cover crops in Switzerland
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Biological nitrogen fixation by legumes is expected to play a greater role in future cropping systems. Our study evaluated 19 legume species grown as cover crops in Swiss agroecosystems.
Two field experiments were set up to monitor the biomass production and nitrogen content of 19 legumes and two non-legumes. The proportion of nitrogen derived from atmospheric N2 (%Ndfa) was assessed using the 15N natural abundance method. In parallel, a pot experiment was set up to determine the species-specific B values necessary to apply this method.
Some species produced an important amount of biomass in 3 months, up to 6.86 t/ha for Vicia faba. Five species, Lathyrus sativus, Pisum sativum, Vicia sativa, Vicia villosa, and V. faba, acquired more than 100 kg/ha of N through biological fixation. Important amounts of nitrogen were also derived from the soil. %Ndfa values showed high variability between and within species, ranging from 0 % to almost 100 %.
Some legumes showed high N accumulation even in a short growing period, and could play an important role in fixing renewable nitrogen in crop rotation.
Keywords15N natural abundance method B value Legumes Nitrogen accumulation Symbiotic N2 fixation
The authors thank Astrid Oberson for her valuable comments, the BSc students from Zollikofen (B value experiment), and all the people who helped in the field and lab work. We also thank Annika Ackermann from the Grassland Sciences group (Prof. Nina Buchmann) at ETH Zurich for stable isotope ratio analyses. The authors are also grateful to Drs. Larry Siwajek and Bernard Jeangros for their respective contributions on the manuscript. This study was partly funded by the Federal Office for Agriculture and by the Swiss National Science Foundation in the framework of the National Research Program NRP 68 “Sustainable Use of Soil as a Resource,” grant 406840-143063.
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