Grassland establishment under varying resource availability: A test of positive and negative feedback

TitleGrassland establishment under varying resource availability: A test of positive and negative feedback
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2008
AuthorsBaer, SG, Blair, JM
Pagination1859 -1871
Accession NumberKNZ001140

The traditional logic of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) interactions in ecosystems predicts further increases or decreases in productivity (positive feedback) in response to high and low fertility in the soil, respectively; but the potential for development of feedback in ecosystems recovering from disturbance is less well understood. Furthermore, this logic has been challenged in grassland ecosystems where frequent fires or grazing may reduce the contribution of aboveground litter inputs to soil organic matter pools and nutrient supply for plant growth, relative to forest ecosystems. Further, if increases in plant productivity increase soil C content more than soil N content, negative feedback may result from increased microbial demand for N making less available for plant growth. We used a field experiment to test for feedback in an establishing grassland by comparing aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP) and belowground pools and fluxes of C and N in soil with enriched, ambient, and reduced N availability. For eight years annual N enrichment increased ANPP, root N, and root tissue quality, but root C:N ratios remained well above the threshold for net mineralization of N. There was no evidence that N enrichment increased root biomass, soil C or N accrual rates, or storage of C in total, microbial, or mineralizable pools within this time frame. However, the net nitrogen mineralization potential (NMP) rate was greater following eight years of N enrichment, and we attributed this to N saturation of the microbial biomass. Grassland developing under experimentally imposed N limitation through C addition to the soil exhibited ANPP, root biomass and quality, and net NMP rate similar to the ambient soil. Similarity in productivity and roots in the reduced and ambient N treatments was attributed to the potentially high nitrogen-use efficiency (NUE) of the dominant C4 grasses, and increasing cover of legumes over time in the C-amended soil. Thus, in a developing ecosystem, positive feedback between soil N supply and plant productivity may promote enhanced long-term N availability and override progressive N limitation as C accrues in plant and soil pools. However, experimentally imposed reduction in N availability did not feed back to reduce ANPP, possibly due to shifts in NUE and functional group composition.