Impacts of climate and management on water balance and nitrogen leaching from montane grassland soils of S-Germany

In this study water balance components as well as nitrogen and dissolved organic carbon leaching were quantified by means of large weighable grassland lysimeters at three sites (860, 770 and 600 m a.s.l.) for both intensive and extensive management. Our results show that at E600, the site with highest air temperature (8.6 °C) and lowest precipitation (981.9 mm), evapotranspiration losses were 100.7 mm higher as at the site (E860) with lowest mean annual air temperature (6.5 °C) and highest precipitation (1359.3 mm). Seepage water formation was substantially lower at E600 (−440.9 mm) as compared to E860. Compared to climate, impacts of management on water balance components were negligible. However, intensive management significantly increased total nitrogen leaching rates across sites as compared to extensive management from 2.6 kg N ha−1year−1 (range: 0.5–6.0 kg N ha−1 year−1) to 4.8 kg N ha−1 year−1 (range: 0.9–12.9 kg N ha−1 year−1). N leaching losses were dominated by nitrate (64.7%) and less by ammonium (14.6%) and DON (20.7%). The low rates of N leaching (0.8–6.9% of total applied N) suggest a highly efficient nitrogen uptake by plants as measured by plant total N content at harvest. Moreover, plant uptake was often exceeding slurry application rates, suggesting further supply of N due to soil organic matter decomposition. The low risk of nitrate losses via leaching and surface runoff of cut grassland on non-sandy soils with vigorous grass growth may call for a careful site and region specific re-evaluation of fixed limits of N fertilization rates as defined by e.g. the German Fertilizer Ordinance following requirements set by the European Water Framework and Nitrates Directive.