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Interseeded alfalfa N2 fixation and transfer to maize are reduced by N fertilizer

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Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Abstract

Establishing alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) under a maize (Zea mays L.) silage companion crop is a promising approach for increasing forage production and profitability, but the role of biological N2 fixation in this system has not been explored. This study utilized 15N natural abundance techniques to assess biological N2 fixation by interseeded alfalfa and transfer of fixed N to maize under three N fertilizer application rates. Across two locations in Wisconsin, USA, the results showed N2 biological fixation supplied 59% of herbage N to interseeded alfalfa with no N fertilizer, though this was reduced to 15% when fertilized with 224 kg N ha−1. Transfer of newly fixed N to maize was observed at both locations, with maize at harvest obtaining on average 28% of N uptake from fixed N without N fertilizer application, and 7% when fertilized with 112 or 224 kg N ha−1. Additionally, both solo-seeded maize and tall fescue (Schenodorus arundinaceus (Schreb.) Dumort.) interseeded into maize system could produce appropriate reference crops for N2 fixation and transfer calculations, provided the N-fertilizer strategies were similar to the interseeded alfalfa-maize system. Furthermore, results suggest the natural abundance method may not be effective if high rates of N fertilizer are applied at sites having inherently high levels of available soil N. The evidence for transfer of biologically fixed N2 from interseeded alfalfa to maize offers interesting possibilities to leverage this process to ensure efficient N cycling, but it must be balanced against the need to ensure an adequate N supply for high maize silage yields.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank Matt Volenec for assistance with fieldwork. Funding was provided in part by a USDA-ARS co-operative agreement (#58-5090-6-060) with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a USDA-NIFA grant (#2017-70005-27087). Mention of trade names or commercial products does not imply recommendation or endorsement by the USDA. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.

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W.O. wrote the main manuscript text and prepared figures. All authors contributed to research conceptualization and reviewed the manuscript.

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Correspondence to William Osterholz.

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Osterholz, W., Ruark, M., Renz, M. et al. Interseeded alfalfa N2 fixation and transfer to maize are reduced by N fertilizer. Nutr Cycl Agroecosyst 126, 67–79 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10705-023-10276-y

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