Institute of

Climate-Smart Agriculture

Caroline Buchen

Dr. rer. nat. (27.01.2017)

Caroline Buchen with doctoral cap
Caroline Buchen with doctoral cap (© Thünen-Institut/AK)

Caroline Buchen successfully defended her doctoral thesis on "The fate of nitrogen after grassland renewal and grassland conversion to maize cropping – An investigation of N2O processes and mineral N dynamics at the field scale" on 27.01.2017 at the Faculty of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Environmental Sciences of the Technical University Braunschweig. The dissertation was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG-Research Training Group 1397 "Regulation of soil organic matter and nutrient turnover in organic agriculture").

Grassland renewal is a common agricultural management technique on intensively used grasslands, in particular in north-western Europe. The break-up of permanent grassland is associated with the release of large amounts of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) caused by an increased mineralisation due to decomposition of soil organic matter (SOM) and the old grass sward. This additional supply of mineral N can cause enhanced N losses either in gaseous form as nitrous oxide (N2O), an important greenhouse gas and/or as nitrate (NO3-) leaching. Within the research project, studies have been carried out about the persistence of this effect by using different renewal techniques (with and without mechanical sward destruction) and the processes of N2O turnover following grassland break-up.  

For this purpose, a field trial (2013-2015) with different renewal techniques in comparison to permanent grassland and grassland conversion to maize cropping, was set up on two grassland sites (soil types: Histic Gleysol and Plaggic Anthrosol) with different SOM content and drainage regime in the north-western part of Germany.

In the first part of the study, N2O fluxes and mineral N dynamics (0-30 cm) following grassland break-up were studied for a period of two years. In addition mineral N profiles (0-90 cm) were used to estimate the risk of NO3- leaching over winter. Although no effect of the different renewal treatments on the annual N2O emissions was obtained, grassland renewal caused elevated N2O fluxes for a short period of two months. The risk of NO3- leaching, however, was particularly enhanced during the first winter following grassland break-up, especially for the sandy Plaggic Anthrosol.

To investigate N2O production processes and in particular N2O reduction to N2 (i.e. the end product of denitrification), the 15N gas-flux method was applied in situ during summer period in 2014 in the second part of the study. For the Histic Gleysol, large N losses via denitrification processes were obtained, in particular in form of N2. For the Plaggic Anthrosol, lower gaseous losses were obtained.

In the third part of the study, natural abundance stable isotope signatures of soil-emitted N2O (δ15NbulkN2O, δ18ON2O and δ15NSPN2O = intramolecular distribution of 15N in the N2O molecule) were used to identify sources of N2O emission during the first year after grassland renewal (2013-2014). For the first time, the magnitude of N2O reduction and the fraction of bacterial denitrification could be estimated simultaneously from field data using a new evaluation routine. Through the simultaneous execution of measurements, the first comparison on field scale was possible.

For the two investigated sites, a large mineralisation potential was present. This means, that a rapid development of the new grass sward or crop is necessary in order to optimise the N fertiliser utilisation and avoid N losses. Furthermore, the mineral N dynamics has to be taken into account in the N balance. By using N2O isotopocule data, it was shown that N2 emissions are an important pathway of losses in the N balance, which should be taken into account in the evaluation of N use efficiency in grasslands.