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Understanding constraints to cocksfoot (Dactylis glomerata L.) based pasture production

Understanding constraints to cocksfoot (Dactylis glomerata L.) based pasture production
Annamaria Mills


Faculty of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Lincoln University, Lincoln 7647, Canterbury, NEW ZEALAND.


This research examined the mechanisms by which temperature, water availability and nitrogen (N) affect the dry matter (DM) yield potential of cocksfoot (Dactylis glomerata L.) dominant pastures. The experiment was a split plot design with main plots of fully irrigated (I) or dryland (D), sub-plots of N fertiliser at 800 kg N/ha in 2003/04; and 1600 kg N/ha in 2004/05 (+N) or 0 kg N/ha (-N). The potential environmental yield of an established 8 year old cocksfoot dominant pasture was 21.9 t DM/ha/y from I+N pastures compared with 9.8 t DM/ha by I-N pastures and 15.1 t DM/ha/y by D+N pastures. The lowest yields were from dryland pastures with no N which produced 7.5 t DM/ha/y in 2003/03 and 5.0 t DM/ha/y in 2004/05.

The effect of seasonal temperatures on the DM production, when periods of water stress were excluded, was quantified using thermal time accumulated above a base temperature of 3oC as 7.0 kg DM/oCd/ha for N fertilised pastures and 3.3 kg DM/oCd/ha for pastures with no N.

The 2.5 t DM/ha difference in yields of D-N pastures in 2003/04 and 2004/05 was the result of the duration, extent and timing of the water stress period. In both years the critical limiting deficit (DL) was calculated as 78 mm from the soil moisture deficit in the 0-0.8 m soil layers. Beyond DL yield decreased at a rate of 1.45%/mm in +N and –N pastures, relative to fully irrigated control pastures.

Yields of D+N and D-N pastures were similar during periods of water stress with 0.4±0.1 t/DM/ha produced during the rotation ending 30/12/2003. This was less than from either the I-N (1.2 t DM/ha) or I+N (3.5 t DM/ha) pastures due to the reduction in the amount of photosynthetically active radiation intercepted by the canopies of the dryland pastures. However, in the rotation ending 2/5/2004, after autumn rain alleviated drought conditions, yield of the D+N pasture was 2.1 t DM/ha compared with 1.7 t DM/ha by I+N pastures.

The effect of N on yield was described using a nutrition index which showed that as DM yield increased N% in the herbage declined. This is a function of the ratio between metabolic and structural N requirements rather than caused by ontogeny alone. Specific leaf N was determined at two harvests and appeared constant at a given point in time (1.0-1.6 g N/m2 leaf). In contrast, specific pseudostem N increased from 0.8-1.0 g N/m2 pseudostem at an NNI of 0.4 in –N pastures to 2.6-3.0 g N/m2 pseudostem at an NNI of 1.2 in the +N pastures.

Differences between the yields of +N and –N pastures were caused by differences in radiation use efficiency (RUE) as determined by the linear relationship (R2=0.76) between RUE and the nitrogen nutrition index (NNI).

In this thesis, empirical relationships for the effects of temperature, water availability and N were derived and the physiological mechanisms which underlie these descriptions were identified. These relationships provide clear and simple explanations of the effects of environmental variables on the productivity of cocksfoot based pastures which will enhance understanding of the benefits and limitations of cocksfoot, particularly in dryland farming systems.