Relevance of plant functional types based on leaf dry matter content for assessing digestibility of native grass species and species-rich grassland communities in spring

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Little research has been done on the nutritive value of species-rich permanent grasslands in spite of their recognized ecological value. We proposed a new method based on the concept of plant functional type (PFT) to rank grass species and grasslands according to the organic matter digestibility (OMD) of the plant material. The PFTs are based on leaf dry matter content (LDMC). The objectives of this study were: (i) to see if there were significant differences between PFTs for the three components of plant OMD (leaf and stem digestibility and leaf proportion [L%]) in a set of 19 grasses growing in pure stand under two contrasting levels of N supply (Exp. 1); (ii) to see whether grassland vegetation types (GVT) differing in their PFT composition have different digestibility values; investigations being made on the leaf, stem, and whole plant OMD of five and eight plant communities (Exp. 2 and 3, respectively). In pure grass stands (Exp. 1) as well as in grassland communities (Exp. 2 and 3), there was a significant effect of PFT or GVT on leaf and stem OMD. The greatest differences in L% were observed when there were large differences in nutrient availability. At the leafy stage, the whole plant digestibility was higher for GVTs composed of PFTs with a low LDMC. However around the time of flowering there was a convergence in whole-plant OMD between all grassland communities because L% decreased faster for those composed of PFTs having the lowest LDMC. At this stage, plots with low LDMC had higher plant component digestibility but lower L%. Our results show that the decrease in plant digestibility over time is the result of two processes, an ontogenic one, due to a decrease in leaf proportion, and an ageing one. For the latter, we show that PFT had an effect of leaf and stem digestibility at an early stage of plant development, then they decreased at a rate depending on plant development. Both processes explained the convergence between GVTs in plant digestibility at flowering time.

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