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Value of Legumes and Grass in

Building Soil Productivity

Jeff Schoenau PAg
Professor of Soil Science and SMA Chair
Soil Science Department
College of Agriculture and Bioresources
University of Saskatchewan
• Legumes
• Grass
• Mixtures
Legumes, Forage Crops Do
Great Things for Soil!
Pea Alfalfa Alfalfa-Brome
Benefits to Soil From Legumes In A

Biological Fixation of
Atmospheric N

Nodules that form on legume roots containing superior strains

of N fixing bacteria fix N for legume crop and contribute to
N nutrition of following crop
Nitrogen Fixation by Legumes (Courtesy Dr. F. Walley)

Plant sends
energy to

N transferred to plant

Rhizobia convert
atmospheric N to plant
Nitrogen fixation is energy expensive.
There is a cost to the plant.

If it affects the plant, it affects fixation

How Much Nitrogen is Derived
From the Air and Converted Into
Plant N By a Legume Crop?
• Variable: Different ways to measure give
different numbers


~ 70% to 80% of N in legume comes

from atmosphere via biological
fixation in nodule
Amount of N fixed in Western Canada
lbs N / acre
Alfalfa 100 – 250
Faba Bean 80 - 200
Pea 50 – 150
Soybean 40 - 140
Lentil 30 - 120
Chickpea 20 - 100
Dry Bean 5 – 70

• Actual amount depends on inoculation/nodulation,

environmental conditions, soil available N and other
nutrients like P.
• Amount of N fixed can approach that removed in harvest:
N removed comes from air instead of soil or fertilizer.
Alfalfa is very efficient N fixer!

Greater than 90% of Nitrogen in alfalfa was found to be derived

from biological fixation of atmospheric N by rhizobia in nodules
on alfalfa roots (Gazali Issah, 2019, PhD student, U of S).
But what about next year s crop?
Where does the benefit come from?
NON-N Benefit
- break pest cycles
- improve soil tilth
- soil moisture utilization
- promote beneficial soil biological
activity : AM fungi, PGPR
- promote uptake of other nutrients like P
Ø Beneficial fungi: AM fungi that extend
rooting system, improve access to soil

Ø Legumes develop strong mycorrhizal

relationships, impart an ability to serve
as excellent scavengers of P, K, S,
micronutrients from soil.
wheat flax


Alfalfa roots photo courtesy OMAFRA
Direct N Benefit
• Nitrogen is made available to a following
crop by microbial decomposition of
surface residues, roots, old nodules.
• May already be happening after harvest
and in early spring, shows up in soil test.
Crop N uptake on legume stubble often higher
than what is explained by N coming from
residue itself.

– Better conditions for root growth

– Stimulated biological activity

Short Rotation Forage Legumes
Ø Couple years of forage legume (e.g. alfalfa or clover)
followed by annual crops (e.g. cereal, oilseed).

Ø Forage legumes fix N for themselves that also

becomes available for following crop.

Ø Also effects on P availability. Deep roots of forage

legumes bring up P from depth. Help maintain
available soil P in face of high removal when field is
SK Study 2010-2013
Short Rotation Forages
Experimental sites




Reference: R. Miheguli, J. Schoenau, P.

Jefferson. 2018. American Journal of Plant
Sciences 9: 1807-1825.

From Canadian Plains Research Centre Mapping

Crop rotation treatments:


4 Rotations compared:

1) Alfalfa-Alfalfa-Wheat-Canola
2) Red Clover- Red Clover- Wheat-Canola
3) Barley-Pea-Wheat-Canola
4) Barley-Flax-Wheat -Canola
N Fertilizer Replacement Value to wheat from growing
alfalfa or clover in previous two years
(how much fertilizer N had to be added to bring yield of wheat grown on
flax stubble to the yield of wheat on legume stubble )
Sites Alfalfa-Alfalfa Clover-Clover
-------- (kg N ha-1) --------
Saskatoon 75 100
Lanigan 103 172
Melfort 317 236

■ Benefit greater in more moist environments

■ Combo of direct N benefit and non-N benefit effects.

■ Similar trend observed for 2013 canola but NFR values less.

What about Phosphorus?

P removal (kg P/ha) by crops in rotation over two years

Sites A-A† RC-RC B-P B-FL

-------------- (kg P ha-1) ---------------
Saskatoon 30.2a 25.0a 6.6b 9.6b
Lanigan 34.6a 25.0b 11.0c 10.5c
Swift Current 15.0a 10.3b 6.1c 5.8c
Melfort 19.0a 19.0a 15.8a 19.6a

† A-A is alfalfa-alfalfa; RC-RC is red clover-red clover;

B-P is barley-pea; B-FL is barley-flax.
Impacts on Phosphorus Fertility

■ Two years of alfalfa and red clover took up greater amounts of P from
the soil relative to barley-pea and barley-flax.
But no significant reduction in soil available P after 2 yrs
■ Maintenance of soil available P levels after two
years of forage legume, despite greater crop
removal of P in forage harvest, reflects ability of
legume to mobilize soil P, maintain fertility in short
Crop P balance over a four-year rotational cycle
Fertilizer P P removed
P balance‡
Site Treatment applied in biomass
---------------------- (kg P ha-1) ------------------------
A-A-W-C† 6.6 49.4a -42.8b
RC-RC-W-C 6.6 43.2a -36.6b
B-P-W-C 6.6 22.1b -15.5a
B-FL-W-C 6.6 24.7b -18.1a

A-A-W-C 6.6 54.5a -47.9d

RC-RC-W-C 6.6 48.3b -41.7c
B-P-W-C 6.6 22.9c -16.4b
B-FL-W-C 6.6 17.0d -10.4a

A-A-W-C 6.6 27.5a -21.0b

RC-RC-W-C 6.6 24.4ab -17.9ab
Swift Current
B-P-W-C 6.6 17.4b -10.9a
B-FL-W-C 6.6 18.0b -11.5a

A-A-W-C 6.6 52.3a -45.7b

Melfort RC-RC-W-C 6.6 48.7ab -42.2ab
B-P-W-C 6.6 43.5b -37.0a
B-FL-W-C 6.6 42.4b -35.8a

Over long-term, forage legumes can deplete soil P through greater P removal
in harvest.
Summary of Findings

Forage legumes in rotation even for a short time can generate

significant fertility benefits:

Nitrogen benefit
Non-N benefit
Help maintain soil P availability in short-term

Greater removal of P and other nutrients (K, S, micros) over longer

term means depletion will eventually need to be addressed.

Solution: manures and composts are rich in P, K, S

What about grass?
Soil Organic Matter
Ø A study in east-central (Meacham-Dana)
and north-east (Gronlid-Pleasantdale)
Saskatchewan compared:
Soil organic carbon and nutrient supply
rates in 12 side-by-side matches of annual
cropped versus 5-12 years of grass seed-
down in Ducks Unlimited leases.
10 Years of Grass Seed-down Cultivated Comparable
Taking cores of soil (0-15cm) for
Soil Organic Carbon measurement.
Measurement of N and P Supply Rates in Cores Using PRS Probes
Main findings
• Comparisons often revealed significantly higher
organic carbon amounts in top 15 cm of grass
seed-down than in cultivated comparables.
Grass Seed-down Cultivated
--------------- Tonnes C / ha ---------------
Meacham 59.4 52.6
Dana 43.1 36.1
Gronlid 44.5 25.5
Source: Mensah, Schoenau and Malhi. 2003. Biogeochemistry 63
Similar findings in Missouri Coteau region in South Sask.

Rates of Carbon Sequestration in Missouri Coteau region based on

soil organic carbon differences in paired comparisons were estimated
at 0.3 to 2.9 tonnes C / ha / yr.
Shoulder positions in landscape showed greatest response in increased
C storage with grass seed-down (Nelson, Schoenau, Malhi 2008)

Grass-seed down increases soil organic matter!

Influence of Seeding Salt Tolerant
Wheatgrass and Adding Amendments
on Productivity and Properties of Salt-
Affected Soils

P. Hrycyk, G. Wang, J. Schoenau

Department of Soil Science, University of Saskatchewan
Soil Salinity Risk Evaluation for Canadian Prairies

(Steppuhn, H. Principles and Crop Yield Response To Root-Zone Salinity. 2013.

Prairie Soils and Crops 6:40-51.)
Salt tolerant forage options

Source: Glen Friesen MAFRI, 2009 “Managing Saline Areas with forages”
Evaluate effect of growing AC Saltlander
green wheatgrass alone and with three
added amendments: leonardite, humic acid,
composted manure

• on green wheatgrass yield and nutrition

• on soil organic carbon and salinity

Experimental Design
• RCBD design with 4 replications at
two sites: non-saline and saline,
located in same field in Brown soil
zone near Central Butte, SK.
• Pea stubble.
• Amendment Treatments:
•Control (CNTL) (no organic
•Leonardite (LEO) @10,000 kg ha-1
•Humic acid (HA) @ 200 kg ha-1
•Compost manure (CSM)@ 10,000
kg ha-1
Field Study
started in spring of 2017 with amendment application
and seeding AC Saltlander
AC Saltlander Green Wheatgrass on June 3 2018 (one yr after seeding)
Non-saline (left) and Saline (right) Plots
AC Saltlander Green Wheatgrass YIELD in Fall of
AC Saltlander Green Wheatgrass YIELD in Spring of
Non-Saline Site Spring 2019 Saline Site Spring 2019

Fall 2019 Biomass Yield (2yrs) Fall 2019 Biomass Yield (2yrs)
2765 kg ha-1 + 633 kg ha-1 2613 kg ha-1 + 1036 kg ha-1
Findings to date

• Above ground biomass yield of AC Saltlander on non-
saline site was 4 to 5x higher than on saline site in year of
establishment. Difference diminishing in subsequent years:
green wheat grass “catching up” on saline site. We are
getting a palatable forage to grow on salt affected land!

• Amendments had no statistically significant (p>0.05)

influence on yield or nutrient uptake. Trend for benefit in
second year.
• Water soluble organic carbon increased in the season
following grass seed down. Addition of leonardite at 10
tonnes per ha significantly increased total soil organic
carbon mass in the top 15 cm of both saline and non-
saline soils.

• Soil pH and EC to 60 cm depth after two years was not

significantly affected by amendment. Values were
similar to those measured at start of study.

We are continuing our measurements for another two years

Multi-species mixtures versus
monoculture in a grazing system
Effect of two years of annual polycrop
mixture versus monocrop barley swath
grazing on soil organic matter in east-
central Saskatchewan
Jacqueline Toews (MSc student), Jeff Schoenau, and Bart Lardner
College of Agriculture, University of Saskatchewan
Annual Polycrop Mixtures

Main Objective
Assess the impact of two annual swath grazing
systems (novel polycrop mixture vs traditional
barley monoculture) on forage yield, water
extractable and total soil organic C and N in a field
located in east-central Saskatchewan at
Termuende Farm, Lanigan.
Polycrop Mixture
• “Ultimate Annual Blend” with forage peas (Pisum sativa cv. 4010)
§ Provided in-kind by Union Forage

Species composition of Ultimate Annual Blend Polycrop Mixture

Item 2017 2018
Hairy Vetch (Vicia villosa) 30% 30%
Crimson Clover (Trifolium incarnatum) 10% 10%
Italian Ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum) 25% 30%
Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) 15% 0%
Winfred Forage Brassica (Brassica napus ssp. biennis) 10% 10%
Hunter Brassica (Brassica rapa syn.B campestris) 5% 10%
Graza Forage Brassica (Raphanus sativa ssp. maritimus) 5% 10%
(Union Forage, 2017; Union Forage, 2018)
Above – Ground Biomass Yield

Fig. 1. Forage above-ground dry biomass yield (T ha-1) of grazing systems over 2 yr.
Change in Total SOC Mass After 2 Growing Seasons

Figure 4. Change in TOC (Mg ha-1) measured at two depths in the grazing
systems from Spring 2017 to Fall 2018 in landscape positions.
Below-Ground Root Biomass Yield in Fall 2018

Figure 5. Root biomass yield (T ha-1) measured in the grazing systems in Fall
2018 according to slope position.
§ Legumes in a grazing system enhance soil N
pools and contribute to N fertility.
§ Increases in total soil organic carbon mass in the
5-20 cm depth were observed from beginning to
end of the 2 yr study in upslope locations of the
polycrop mixture treatment.
§ Effects are better explained by below-ground
biomass (roots) than above.