How Does Nitrogen Application Rate Affect Plant Functional Traits and Crop Growth Rate of Perennial Ryegrass-Dominated Permanent Pastures?
High doses of nitrogen (N) fertiliser input on permanent pastures are crucial in terms of N surplus and N losses. Quantitative analyses of the response of plant functional traits (PFT) driving crop growth rate (CGR) under low N input are lacking in frequently defoliated pastures. This study aimed to understand the significance of PFTs for productivity and N uptake in permanent grasslands by measuring dynamics in tiller density (TD), tiller weight (TW), leaf weight ratio (LWR), leaf area index (LAI), specific leaf area (SLA), as well as leaf N content per unit mass (LNCm) and per unit area (LNCa) in perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne)-dominated pastures, in a simulated rotational grazing approach over two consecutive growing seasons. Annual N application rates were 0, 140 and 280 kg N ha−1. The phenological development of perennial ryegrass was the main driver of CGR, N uptake and most PFTs. The effect of N application rate on PFTs varied during the season. N application rate showed the greatest effect on TD, LAI and, to a lesser extent, on SLA and LNCm. The results of this study highlight the importance of TD and its role in driving CGR and N uptake in frequently defoliated permanent pastures.