Understanding the relationships between vegetative and environmental variables is important for revegetation and ecosystem management on the Loess Plateau, China. Lucerne (Medicago sativa L.) has been widely used in the region to improve revegetation, soil and water conservation, and to enhance livestock production. However, there is little information on how environmental factors influence long-term succession in lucerne-rich vegetation. Our objective was to identify the main environmental variables controlling the succession process in lucerne-rich vegetation such that native species are not suppressed after sowing on the Loess Plateau. Vegetation and soil surveys were performed in 31 lucerne fields (three lucerne fields without any management from 2003–2013 and 28 fields containing 11-year-old lucerne with one cutting each year). Time after planting was the most important factor affecting plant species succession. Cutting significantly affected revegetation characteristics, such as aboveground biomass, plant density and diversity. Soil moisture content, soil organic carbon, soil available phosphorus and slope aspect were key environmental factors affecting plant species composition and aboveground biomass, density and diversity. Long-term cutting can cause self-thinning in lucerne, maintain the stability of lucerne production and slow its degradation. For effective management of lucerne fields, phosphate fertilizer should be applied and cutting performed.
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