Nitrogen dynamics in soil: legume cover cropping vs. fertilizer

January 7, 2015

The availability of Haber-Bosch nitrogen (N) has permitted agricultural intensification and increased the productive capacity of agroecosystems; however, approximately 50% of this applied fertilizer N is lost from agricultural landscapes. Extensive efforts have been devoted to improving the N use efficiency of these systems. Diversified crop rotations using cover crops to provide a variety of ecosystem functions, including biological N fixation (BNF), could maintain yields while reducing N losses. Although leguminous plants used as green manures are capable of fixing N in quantities which exceed cash crop demand, the prospect of replacing significant quantities of Haber-Bosch N with BNF is widely viewed as impractical due to yield reductions. Likewise, the practice of replacing bare fallows with non-leguminous cover crops in systems receiving Haber-Bosch N is generally deemed not economically viable. We conducted a quantitative assessment of cash crop yields and N retention in rotations that implemented these practices. We performed a meta-analysis on experiments comparing crop yield, nitrate leaching, or soil nitrate between conventional (receiving inorganic fertilizer with a winter bare fallow) and diversified systems managed using either a non-legume over-wintering cover crop (amended with inorganic fertilizer) or a legume over-wintering cover crop (no additional N fertilizer). Only studies with rotations designed to produce a cash crop every year were included in our analysis. Many yield comparisons were found in the literature, but only a limited number of nitrate leaching or soil inorganic N studies met the criteria for inclusion in a meta-analysis. Long-term studies were also uncommon, with most data coming from experiments lasting 2–3 years. Yields under non- legume cover crop management were not significantly different from those in the conventional, bare fallow systems, while leaching was reduced by 70% on average. Relative to yields following conventional N-fertilization, the legume-fertilized crops averaged 10% lower yields. However, yields under green manure fertilization were not significantly different relative to conventional systems when legume biomass provided 䏰€110 kg N ha䏰1. On average, nitrate leaching was reduced by 40% in legume-based systems relative to conventional fertilizer-based systems. Post-harvest soil nitrate status, a measure of potential N loss, was similar in conventional and green manure systems suggesting that reductions in leaching losses were largely due to avoidance of bare fallow periods. These results demonstrate the potential for diversified rotations using N- and non-N-fixing cover crops to maintain crop yields while reducing the anthropogenic contributions to reactive N fluxes. # 2005 Published by Elsevier B.V."


C. Tonitto, M.B. David, L.E. Drinkwater, "Replacing bare fallows with cover crops in fertilizer-intensive cropping systems: A meta-analysis of crop yield and N dynamics," Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 112 (2006): 58–72, doi:10.1016/j.agee.2005.07.003.
[verified 4/15/14]


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