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Role of legumes in providing N for sustainable tropical pasture systems

Abstract

Forage legumes have long been lauded for their ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen and contribute to the sustainability of agricultural production systems. However despite the benefits they bring in terms of increased herbage and animal production they are not widely used in temperate or tropical regions. In this review the amounts of biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) needed to sustain the soil-plant-animal system are discussed and related to the amounts fixed in tropical pastures. The data suggest that tropical forage legumes have the capacity to meet the requirements to balance the N cycle of grazed pastures. The actual amounts required will depend on the rate of pasture utilization and the efficiency of recycling via litter, excreta and internal remobilization. The efficiency of nitrogen fixation (% of legume N derived from fixation) is usually high in tropical pastures (>80%) and is unlikely to be affected by inorganic soil N in the absence of N fertilizer. Thus an estimate of the amoutns of N fixed could be obtained from simple estimates of legume biomass provided tissue levels of other nutrients such as phosphorus and potassium are adequate. Key factors for the achievement of sustainable grass/legume pastures include the selection of appropriate germplasm adapted to the particular environment and the judicious use of fertilizers such as phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and sulphur on acid infertile soils typical of the sub-humid and humid tropics. The main constraints to the widespread adoption of forage legumes include a lack of legume persistence, the presence of anti-quality factors such as tannins, variable Bradyrhizobium requirements and lack of acceptability by farmers. Strategies for the alleviation of these constrainst are discussed. Forage legumes can be used to recuperate degraded soils via their ability to improve the physical, chemical and biological properties of soils and these benefits could be of particular use for small-scale resource-poor farmers. The incorporation of forage legumes into agropastoral systems is discussed as an environmentally and economically attractive means to encourage the widespread adoption of legumes in the humid tropics.

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Thomas, R.J. Role of legumes in providing N for sustainable tropical pasture systems. Plant Soil 174, 103–118 (1995). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00032243

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Key words

  • agropastoral systems
  • farmer acceptability
  • forage legume
  • fertilization
  • nitrogen fixation
  • persistence
  • tropical pastures