The ability of cover crop mixtures to provide both nitrogen (N) retention and N supply services has been extensively studied in research station experiments, especially with grass-legume bicultures. Mixtures are often as effective as grass monocultures at N retention, but the N supply service can be compromised when non-legumes dilute the presence of legumes in a cover crop stand. To study the tradeoffs between N retention and supply when using cover crop mixtures, we measured N retention and supply in distributed on-farm experiments, developed multiple linear regression models to predict N retention and supply based on cover crop functional characteristics and environmental variables, and synthesized the regression models into a graphical analysis tool. The experiments took place on three organic farms and a research station in Pennsylvania, USA and tested 3-species and 4-species cover crop mixtures in comparison to commonly used grass and legume monocultures. Cover crop treatments were planted between a small grain crop harvested in mid-summer and a maize (Zea mays L.) crop planted the following spring. Potential nitrate (NO3−) leaching below 30 cm, an indicator of the N retention service, declined as the presence of non-legume species in a cover crop increased (r2 = 0.72). Potential NO3− leaching increased as the August soil NO3−-N concentration increased and as the fall biomass N content of winter-killed species or canola (Brassica napus L. ‘Wichita’) increased. Relative maize yield, an indicator of the N supply service, decreased as fall and spring cover crop biomass carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratios increased and increased as total spring biomass N content and soil carbon (C) concentration increased (r2 = 0.56). Synthesizing the regression models in a graphical analysis tool revealed a tradeoff between N supply and retention services for cover crop mixtures, where increasing the fractional non-legume seeding rate to reduce potential NO3− leaching also reduced relative maize yield. The tradeoff could be minimized by managing environmental conditions and cover crop composition so that potential NO3− leaching remains low even when the fractional non-legume seeding rate is low. The regression models suggest this could be achieved by maintaining low soil NO3−-N concentrations prior to cover crop planting in August, not including winter-killed legumes in the mixture, and using non-legume species that are the most efficient at N retention. Thus, with thoughtful management of cover crops and soils, farmers may be able to realize the potential of cover crop mixtures to provide high levels of both N retention and supply services.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Animal Science and Zoology
- Agronomy and Crop Science