The effect of application of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulphur fertilisers to a perennial ryegrass sward on yield, quality and apparent intake by dairy cows.
Perennial ryegrass is an intensive, temperate pasture grass that responds well to applied fertiliser. The purpose of this project was to study the effects of fertiliser on the productivity and quality of perennial ryegrass in KwaZulu-Natal and how this impacts on animal intake. It was hypothesised that over-application of fertiliser to a perennial ryegrass pasture would negatively affect the quality of the herbage for grazing by dairy cattle and that intake would be affected. Thus the project aimed to assess the effects of applied fertiliser on yield, quality and intake of an established perennial ryegrass pasture. The trial consisted of a set of six separate experiments. Each experiment focused on the interaction between two of the major nutrient elements nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and sulphur (S). The experiments (NxP, NxK, NxS, PxK, PxS and KxS) were managed separately to avoid possible transfer of nutrients during grazing, which would result in the contamination of treatments. Each factor had three levels (low, medium and high), giving a total of nine treatments per experiment. Each of the experiments was replicated three times in a randomised block design. Increased fertiliser N application rates increased perennial ryegrass yield with a pattern of diminishing return, where split applications above 40 kg N ha-1 produced smaller increases in yield when compared with the response at lower applications of N. Applied P, K and S did not affect yield, suggesting that even the lowest application levels were sufficient to not limit production. Nitrogen application affected apparent intake, but it is suggested that this is due to the yield effect rather than a direct effect of N on apparent intake. The application of P, K and S did not affect apparent intake. Results from this study showed that the quality of perennial ryegrass herbage, especially in terms of feed value to dairy cows, can be significantly affected by applied fertiliser. The extent of the response was affected by sampling date (i.e. time of year) and this must be taken into account when planning a fertiliser management strategy. This is particularly so with respect to N fertiliser recommendations. Crude protein (CP) content of herbage increased with increasing levels of applied N and the extent of the response was influenced by season. P, K and S did not affect CP concentration in herbage, except in the PxK experiment where increased levels of K lowered herbage CP. Applied N considerably increased the concentration of non-protein nitrogen (NPN) in perennial ryegrass herbage. P and S did not affect NPN levels, whereas applied K decreased NPN content in the iv NxK and PxK experiments. Non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) content of herbage was decreased by applied N but was unaffected by applications of P, K and S. Neither neutral detergent fibre (NDF) nor acid detergent fibre (ADF) was affected by applied fertiliser. In this study herbage P declined and herbage Ca increased with increasing levels of applied N. The addition of fertiliser K resulted in lower herbage Ca values. There was no herbage S response to applied fertiliser in this study. Classification and regression tree (CART) analysis identified the primary determinant of apparent intake in experiments containing N as a factor as the amount of material available to be grazed and that NSC, NPN and ADF are also determinants of apparent intake. Cows do not regulate diet choice within the short-term time frame of a meal. Thus intake is determined by short-term needs rather than by meeting long-term nutrient requirements. Fibre creates physical fill within the rumen, thus restricting intake. High NPN content is associated with high nitrate values. The reduction in intake of herbage with high nitrate content may be due to reduced palatability or to a negative feedback system limiting the intake of nitrate and ammonium. Increased NSC content is associated with increased intake, possibly through the effect of sugar on herbage palatability.
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