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Nitrogen loss partitioning and emissions in intensive subtropical hybrid dairy systems

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Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Dairy systems in South America's humid subtropics include grass-legume pastures in rotation with winter-summer double-cropping for silage, thus combining direct grazing with periods of effective confinement for concentrate and silage supplementation. The environmental impacts of these so-called hybrid systems remain unclear. We compiled detailed nitrogen (N) circulation budgets for four dairy systems in Uruguay stocked at 1,300 kg liveweight ha−1 but with contrasting feeding strategies (lesser vs. greater use of maize silage) and cow genotypes (New Zealand vs. North American Holstein–Friesian) and then used a farm environmental model (Overseer® Science) to partition N surpluses into losses to water and air, and to estimate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. All systems exhibited substantial N surpluses (190–238 kg N ha−1) and moderate whole-farm N use efficiencies (31–35%). Conversely, estimated GHG emission intensities were comparatively low: less than 9.9 kg CO2e kg−1 milk fat + protein, with N2O representing less than 20% of total emissions. Nitrogen surpluses were predicted to be lost mainly through leaching (43%) and volatilisation (41%), not denitrification (10%). Loafing pads and fallow periods in pasture-crop transitions contributed the most to N losses. Feeding strategy and cow genotype effects on these patterns were minor. This study identified (i) specific spatiotemporal spots with a disproportionally large impact on potential losses of N –for instance, 12–18% of the farm area accounted for 87–90% of predicted N leaching losses, and (ii) a limited influence of feeding strategy and cow genotype. Such insights into where critical environmental impacts reside provide a quantitative foundation for future studies on intensified hybrid subtropical dairy mitigation strategies.

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The modelling was funded by the New Zealand Government through a fellowship to SS from the Global Research Alliance Livestock Emissions and Abatement Research Network (LEARN) Awards program, hosted by AgResearch Grasslands, Palmerston North. The authors would like to acknowledge Brian Devantier (AgResearch) and the Overseer Ltd. technical team for their technical support during the modelling process and Valentina Rubio and Andrés Berretta for providing soil data. Data on biological nitrogen fixation was produced by the project “Intensificación sostenible de sistemas ganaderos con leguminosas” funded by PROCISUR and FONTAGRO.

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All authors contributed to the study's conception and design. Material preparation, data collection and analysis were performed by SS. The first draft of the manuscript was written by SS, and the previous versions of the manuscript were commented on by FAL, SF and RV. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Sofía Stirling.

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Stirling, S., Lattanzi, F.A., Fariña, S. et al. Nitrogen loss partitioning and emissions in intensive subtropical hybrid dairy systems. Nutr Cycl Agroecosyst (2024).

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