Carbon and nitrogen in the soil microbial biomass were measured on eight occasions during a grassland production season, under swards of perennial ryegrass receiving 210 or 420 kg N ha−1 per year or of ryegrass/white clover receiving no fertiliser N. The swards were either cut or grazed at monthly intervals. Soil microbial biomass C increased under all treatments in late April before declining until late July and rising slowly towards the end of the season. Values for microbial C under cutting and grazing were not significantly different but were usually larger under grass/clover than under grass. In contrast, the smallest values for soil microbial biomass N were recorded in late April. Larger N values were again recorded under grass/clover, and although values were nearly always smaller under grazing than under the corresponding cut treatment the differences were not significant.
Soil biomass N comprised a large reservoir of mobile N, and at any one time contained 11, 3 and 5 times more N than was present in the mineral N component of the soil, the standing crop or excretal returns, respectively. It did not appear to be responsive, within a season, to the considerable returns of C and N from grazing animals or to N fertiliser management.