Tillage intensity influences nitrogen cycling in organic kura clover living mulch

  • 54 Accesses


Perennial cover crops, also known as living mulches, have the capacity to improve soil quality, yet their effects on nitrogen (N) cycling and provisioning in organic systems are not well understood. We evaluated soil N contributions of kura clover (Trifolium ambiguum) between and within crop rows for four zone tillage approaches of varying intensity for corn (Zea mays). In 2015 and 2016, an established kura clover field was subjected to tillage treatments including no-till, traditional shank till, also known as strip-till (ST), novel, PTO-driven rotary zone till (ZT), and a combination of ST and ZT (DT; double till) in Rosemount, MN, followed by corn. An earlier planting date in 2015 (May 5, 2015 vs. May 18, 2016) contributed to a substantially lower rate of kura clover biomass at corn planting in 2015 (518 kg ha−1) compared to 2016 (3035 kg ha−1). The substantial difference in kura clover biomass contributions at tillage and planting between years appeared to govern N cycling indicators. For instance, soil inorganic N differed by tillage treatments only in 2016. After tillage, within row soil inorganic N was 68% and 106% greater than between rows for ST and DT treatments, respectively. At harvest, DT within row soil inorganic N was approximately double that of ST. We conclude that the N benefit from a legume living mulch depends on both the intensity of tillage and the amount of biomass present, and thus there may be advantages to delayed planting, particularly when used for organic production.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Access options

Buy single article

Instant unlimited access to the full article PDF.

US$ 39.95

Price includes VAT for USA

Subscribe to journal

Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.

US$ 199

This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Data availability

The datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


  1. Affeldt RP, Albrecht KA, Boerboom CM, Bures EJ (2004) Integrating herbicide-resistant corn technology in a kura clover living mulch system. Agron J 96:247–251.

  2. Alexander J, Venterea R, Baker J, Coulter J (2019) Kura clover living mulch: spring management effects on nitrogen. Agronomy 9:69.

  3. Brainard DC, Peachey RE, Haramoto ER, Luna JM, Rangarajan A (2013) Weed ecology and nonchemical management under strip-tillage: implications for Northern U.S. Vegetable cropping systems. Weed Technol 27:218–230.

  4. Brandsæter LO, Netland J, Meadow R (1998) Yields, weeds, pests and soil nitrogen in a white cabbage-living mulch system. Biol Agric Hortic 16:291–309.

  5. Culman SW, Snapp SS, Green JM, Gentry LE (2013) Short- and long-term labile soil carbon and nitrogen dynamics reflect management and predict corn agronomic performance. Agron J 105:493–502.

  6. Dobbratz M, Baker JM, Grossman J, Wells MS, Ginakes P (2019) Rotary zone tillage improves corn establishment in a kura clover living mulch. Soil Tillage Res 189:229–235.

  7. Enache AJ, Ilnicki RD (1990) Weed control by subterranean clover (Trifolium subterraneum) used as a living mulch. Weed Technol 4:534–538

  8. Frank DA (2008) Ungulate and topographic control of nitrogen: phosphorus stoichiometry in a temperate grassland; soils, plants and mineralization rates. Oikos 117:591–601.

  9. Giller KE, Cadisch G (1995) Future benefits from biological nitrogen fixation: an ecological approach to agriculture. Plant Soil 174:255–277.

  10. Grabber JH, Jokela WE (2013) Off-season groundcover and runoff characteristics of perennial clover and annual grass companion crops for no-till corn fertilized with manure. J Soil Water Conserv 68:411–418.

  11. Grabber JH, Jokela WE, Lauer JG (2014) Soil nitrogen and forage yields of corn grown with clover or grass companion crops and manure. Agron J 106:952–961.

  12. Grandy AS, Kallenbach C, Loecke TD, Snapp S, Smith RG (2011) The biological basis for nitrogen management in agroecosystems. In: Cheeke T, Wall D, Coleman D (eds) Microbial ecology in sustainable agroecosystems, 1st edn. Taylor and Francis LLC, Milton Park, pp 113–132

  13. Kai-yun X, Xiang-lin L, Feng H, Ying-jun Z, Li-qiang W, Hannaway DB, Dong W, Yan Q, Fadul GMA (2015) Effect of nitrogen fertilization on yield, N content, and nitrogen fixation of alfalfa and smooth bromegrass grown alone or in mixture in greenhouse pots. J Integr Agric 14:1864–1876.

  14. Leavitt MJ, Sheaffer CC, Wyse DL, Allan DL (2011) Rolled winter rye and hairy vetch cover crops lower weed density but reduce vegetable yields in no-tillage organic production. HortScience 46:387–395

  15. Licht MA, Al-Kaisi M (2005) Strip-tillage effect on seedbed soil temperature and other soil physical properties. Soil Tillage Res 80:233–249.

  16. Lowry CJ, Brainard DC (2016) Strip-intercropping of rye-vetch mixtures affects biomass, carbon/nitrogen ratio, and spatial distribution of cover crop residue. Agron J 108:2433–2443.

  17. McSwiney CP, Snapp SS, Gentry LE (2010) Use of N immobilization to tighten the N cycle in conventional agroecosystems. Ecol Appl 20:648–662.

  18. Mohammadi GR, Mozafari S, Ghobadi ME, Najaphy A (2012) Interaction effects of weed interference and berseem clover (Trifolium alexandrinum) as a living mulch on corn (Zea mays). Adv Environ Biol 6:763–767

  19. Ochsner TE, Albrecht KA, Schumacher TW, Baker JM, Berkevich RJ (2010) Water balance and nitrate leaching under corn in kura clover living mulch. Agron J 102:1169–1178.

  20. Ourry A, Kim TH, Boucaud J (1994) Nitrogen reserve mobilization during regrowth of Medicago sativa L. relationships between availability and regrowth yield. Plant Physiol 105:831–837.

  21. Overstreet LF, Hoyt GD (2008) Effects of strip tillage and production inputs on soil biology across a spatial gradient. Soil Sci Soc Am J 72:1454–1463.

  22. Parr M, Grossman JM, Reberg-Horton SC, Brinton C, Crozier C (2011) Nitrogen delivery from legume cover crops in no-till organic corn production. Agron J 103:1578–1590.

  23. Peterson PR, Sheaffer CC, Jordan M, Christians J (1994) Responses of kura clover to sheep grazing and clipping: I. Yield and forage quality. Agron J 86:655–660

  24. Poudel DD, Horwath WR, Lanini WT, Temple SR, van Bruggen AHC (2002) Comparison of soil N availability and leaching potential, crop yields and weeds in organic, low-input and conventional farming systems in northern California. Agric Ecosyst Environ 90:125–137.

  25. Qi Z, Helmers MJ, Christianson RD, Pederson CH (2011) Nitrate-nitrogen losses through subsurface drainage under various agricultural land covers. J Environ Qual 40:1578–1585.

  26. Robertson GP, Sollins P, Ellis BG, Lajtha K (1999) Exchangeable ions, pH, and cation exchange capacity. In: Robertson GP, Coleman DC, Bledsoe CS, Sollins P (eds) Standard soil methods for long-term ecological research. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 106–114

  27. Saturno DF, Cerezini P, Moreira da Silva P, Barbosa de Oliveira A, Neves de Oliveira MC, Hungria M, Nogueira MA (2017) Mineral nitrogen impairs the biological nitrogen fixation in soybean of determinate and indeterminate growth types. J Plant Nutr 40:1690–1701.

  28. Sawyer JE, Pedersen P, Barker DW, Ruiz Diaz DA, Albrecht K (2010) Intercropping corn and kura clover: response to nitrogen fertilization. Agron J 102:568–574.

  29. Scott TW, Mt. Pleasant J, Burt RF, Otis DJ (1987) Contributions of ground cover, dry matter, and nitrogen from intercrops and cover crops in a corn polyculture system. Agron J 79:792–798.

  30. Scott NA, Parfitt RL, Ross DJ, Salt GJ (1998) Carbon and nitrogen transformations in New Zealand plantation forest soils from sites with different N status. Can J For Res 28:967–976.

  31. Seguin P, Russelle MP, Sheaffer CC, Ehlke NJ, Graham PH (2000) Dinitrogen fixation in kura clover and birdsfoot trefoil. Agron J 92:1216–1220

  32. Seguin P, Sheaffer CC, Ehlke NJ, Russelle MP, Graham PH (2001) Nitrogen fertilization and rhizobial inoculation effects on kura clover growth. Agron J 93:1262–1268

  33. Sheaffer CC, Marten GC (1991) Kura clover forage yield, forage quality, and stand dynamics. Can J Plant Sci 71:1169–1172

  34. Siller ARS, Albrecht KA, Jokela WE (2016) Soil erosion and nutrient runoff in corn silage production with kura clover living mulch and winter rye. Agron J 108:989–999.

  35. Wang Z, Lu J, Yang M, Yang H, Zhang Q (2015) Stoichiometric characteristics of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in leaves of differently aged lucerne (Medicago sativa) stands. Front Plant Sci 6:1–10.

  36. Zemenchik RA, Albrecht KA, Boerboom CM, Lauer JG (2000) Corn production with kura clover as a living mulch. Agron J 92:698–705.

  37. Ziyomo C, Albrecht KA, Baker JM, Bernardo R (2013) Corn performance under managed drought stress and in a kura clover living mulch intercropping system. Agron J 105:579–586.

Download references


This work was funded by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (Water Quality Grant #76922), Ceres Trust, and the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (Grant GNC14-187). The authors sincerely thank colleagues Michelle Dobbratz, Bill Breiter, Michael Dolan, and members of the Grossman Lab, as well as Victoria Hoeppner, Elayna Shapiro, Lindsay Countryman, Yordanose Solomone, Victoria Hoffman, Rachel Brann, Bruna De Bacco Lopes, and Kaleiilima Holt.

Author information

Correspondence to Julie Grossman.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 34 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Ginakes, P., Grossman, J., Baker, J. et al. Tillage intensity influences nitrogen cycling in organic kura clover living mulch. Nutr Cycl Agroecosyst 116, 71–82 (2020) doi:10.1007/s10705-019-10025-0

Download citation


  • Kura clover
  • Zone tillage
  • Living mulch
  • Soil inorganic nitrogen
  • Organic agriculture
  • Legume