Managing nitrogen through cover crop species selection in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic

Jason Kaye, Denise Finney, Charles White, Brosi Bradley, Meagan Schipanski, Maria Alonso-Ayuso, Mitch Hunter, Mac Burgess, Catalina Mejia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

80 Scopus citations


Cover crops have the potential to be agricultural nitrogen (N) regulators that reduce leaching through soils and then deliver N to subsequent cash crops. Yet, regulating N in this way has proven difficult because the few cover crop species that are well-studied excel at either reducing N leaching or increasing N supply to cash crops, but they fail to excel at both simultaneously. We hypothesized that mixed species cover crop stands might balance the N fixing and N scavenging capabilities of individual species. We tested six cover crop monocultures and four mixtures for their effects on N cycling in an organically managed maize-soybean-wheat feed grain rotation in Pennsylvania, USA. For three years, we used a suite of integrated approaches to quantify N dynamics, including extractable soil inorganic N, buried anion exchange resins, bucket lysimeters, and plant N uptake. All cover crop species, including legume monocultures, reduced N leaching compared to fallow plots. Cereal rye monocultures reduced N leaching to buried resins by 90% relative to fallow; notably, mixtures with just a low seeding rate of rye did almost as well. Austrian winter pea monocultures increased N uptake in maize silage by 40 kg N ha-1 relative to fallow, and conversely rye monocultures decreased N uptake into maize silage by 40 kg N ha-1 relative to fallow. Importantly, cover crop mixtures had larger impacts on leaching reduction than on maize N uptake, when compared to fallow plots. For example, a three-species mixture of pea, red clover, and rye had similar maize N uptake to fallow plots, but leaching rates were 80% lower in this mixture than fallow plots. Our results show clearly that cover crop species selection and mixture design can substantially mitigate tradeoffs between N retention and N supply to cash crops, providing a powerful tool for managing N in temperate cropping systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0215448
JournalPloS one
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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