Nutrient leaching under intensive sheep grazing : a dissertation presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Animal Science at Massey University, Manawatu, New Zealand

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Massey University
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The use of some alternative forages may help sheep farmers to reduce nitrogen (N) leaching while increasing production. This thesis explores the effects of four forages (perennial ryegrass/white clover: RGWC; Italian ryegrass/white clover: IRWC; plantain/white clover: PWC; and a winter brassica) on sheep performance, urinary N excretion and N loss in drainage over two and a half years (Year 1: July to December 2019; Year 2: January to December 2020; Year 3: January to December 2021). This study was conducted on an artificially drained, fine textured Tokomaru silt loam soil at Massey University’s Keeble farm, near Palmerston North, Manawatu, New Zealand. The study design included four self-contained farmlets (each approximately 3.3 ha): three farmlets had 0.8 ha (24% of their grazing area) sown to include one of three alternative forages (IRWC or PWC or brassica), and the remaining 2.5 ha was sown in a perennial ryegrass/white clover sward. The entire area (100% of grazing area) of the fourth farmlet was sown in RGWC. Approximately 0.4 ha of each farmlet was located in a paddock where a series of 20 drainage plots (each 40 m by 20 m) were established to measure N leaching. Each of the alternative forages, and the RGWC, were sown on five of the drainage plots i.e., five replicates (combined area of 0.4 ha), which composed about one-half of the area of each alternative forage on each farmlet. The amount of N leached through a mole-pipe network on each drainage plot was also measured. Breeding ewe productivity including liveweight, condition score and lambing performance, as well as N excretion was also measured. In addition, forage growth and DM production were monitored along with chemical and botanical composition. The inclusion of alternative forages into the RGWC system did not affect animal performance. This was due, in part, to animal management. The N leached under various forages was, therefore, able to be compared without the confounding effects of differences in animal performance. The daily urinary N excretion per animal by sheep grazing PWC or brassica was lower (18 to 70%) than the daily urinary N excretion by sheep grazing RGWC or IRWC. It is likely that the diuretic effect of plantain and a lower N concentration in the brassica caused lower N concentrations in urine. Nitrate (NO₃⁻) leaching losses under RGWC, IRWC and PWC were very small in Years 1 and 2 (ranging from 0.4 to 0.8 kg N/ha). The poor persistence of IRWC and PWC at this site and the need to re-establish these forages on the plots resulted in greater NO₃⁻ leaching under these forages in Year 3, negating some of the advantages associated with these forages in Years 1 and 2. In contrast, NO₃⁻ leaching losses were greater under brassica forages (ranging from 0.4 to 6.4 kg N/ha) than under RGWC (ranging from 0.5 to 1.5 kg N/ha). Although sheep grazing brassica forages excreted less urinary N (on an individual animal basis), leaching losses under the brassica treatments were higher. In addition to the effect of cultivation, this increased leaching was likely because brassica plots were grazed for a more extended period during winter than other forages, and there was no crop (forage) cover until the spring resowing; therefore, the urinary N accumulated during winter grazing was displaced by subsequent drainage. With the assumption that the cropped area occupies a relatively small portion of the farm, grazing brassica is likely to result in a relatively small increase in whole farm NO₃⁻ leaching. Overall, NO₃⁻ leaching losses under sheep grazing forages were lower (ranging from 0.5 to 9.5 kg N/ha) than those reported under dairy cattle grazing forages, which suggests that sheep production may offer an alternative land use option for dairying areas where it is difficult to achieve the large reductions in NO₃⁻ leaching required to meet water quality objectives.
Sheep, Feeding and feeds, Forage plants, Soils, Nitrogen content, Leaching, New Zealand, Pamerston North