Managing cover crop C:N ratio and subsurface-banded poultry litter rate for optimal corn yields

Steven B. Mirsky, Brian W. Davis, Hanna Poffenbarger, Michel A. Cavigelli, Jude E. Maul, Harry Schomberg, John T. Spargo, Resham Thapa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cover crops can be used to provide some of the nitrogen (N) needs of a cash crop to complement mineral fertilizers or manure, but there has yet been limited work to describe corn (Zea mays L.) yield as a function of cover crop quality and N inputs. We investigated the response of corn yield to gradients of both preceding cover crop C:N ratio and poultry litter (PL) application rates in Beltsville, MD during 2012–2014. To achieve different C:N ratios of the cover crops, hairy vetch (Vicia villosa Roth. "Groff") and cereal rye (Secale cereale L. "Aroostook") were seeded in a replacement series of six seeding rate proportions, resulting in shoot C:N ratios of 9.2:1 to 152:1 across years. For each hairy vetch/cereal rye sown proportions, PL was side-dressed at corn V5–V8 stage in subsurface bands (SSB) at four targeted rates: Zero, P-based (67 kg plant available nitrogen [PAN] ha−1), N-based (135 kg PAN ha−1), and excess N and P (269 kg PAN ha−1). We found that corn yield followed a linear-plateau relationship across these two dimensions. Within the linear region, each unit increase in log-scaled cover crop C:N ratio resulted in a yield decrease of 2.56 ± 0.26 Mg ha−1 at a given rate of SSB PL. To optimize corn yields, we describe a model where each unit increase in log-scaled cover crop C:N ratio required an additional 45.9 ± 6.22 kg PAN ha−1 from SSB PL. Yields following winter fallow were typically intermediate to the range of yields observed following the gradient of cover crop C:N ratios. We did not find significant differences in corn yield responses when comparing SSB PL to at-planting incorporated or broadcast PL; we also found no significant differences between SSB PL and surface-banded urea ammonium nitrate. Taken together, our approach of modeling yield response across two dimensions can be widely used to guide adaptive N management in subsequent cash crops following winter cover crops, thereby balancing both economic and environmental objectives in cover crop-based cropping systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1746-1761
Number of pages16
JournalAgronomy Journal
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Agronomy and Crop Science

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