Phosphorus (P) fertilisers are important for productivity in many grassland systems. Phosphorus is a non-renewable and finite resource, and there are environmental and economic reasons for using P more effectively. We review the P balance of temperate pastures to identify the factors contributing to inefficient use of P fertiliser and discuss ways to improve P-balance efficiency. Immediate gains can be made by ensuring that P fertiliser inputs are managed to ensure that the plant-available P concentrations of soil do not exceed the minimum concentration associated with maximum pasture production. Unnecessarily high soil P concentrations are associated with greater potential for P loss to the wider environment, and with higher rates of P accumulation in soils that have a high P-sorption capacity. Soil microorganisms already play a crucial role in P cycling and its availability for pasture growth, but are not amenable to management. Consequently, plants with lower critical P requirements, particularly because of better root foraging, will be an important avenue for improving the P-balance efficiency of fertilised pastures. Traits such as long fine roots, branching, root hairs, and mycorrhizal associations all contribute to improved root foraging by pasture plants; some of these traits are amenable to breeding. However, progress in breeding for improved P efficiency in pasture plants has been minimal. It is likely that traditional plant breeding, augmented by marker-assisted selection and interspecific hybridisation, will be necessary for progress. There are practical limits to the gains that can be made by root foraging alone; therefore, plants that can ‘mine’ sparingly available P in soils by producing organic anions and phosphatases are also needed, as are innovations in fertiliser technology.
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Vol. 65 • No. 6