Combining cover crops and low nitrogen fertilization improves soil supporting functions

  • Silvina Beatriz Restovich
  • Adrián Enrique Andriulo
  • Cecilia María Armas-Herrera
  • María José Beribe
  • Silvina Isabel PortelaEmail author
Regular Article


Background and aims

Cover crops may restore soil functions lost with single summer crop sequences enhancing soil organic carbon and nitrogen (SOC and SON) stocks. We investigated the effect of cover crops and low nitrogen (N) fertilization on SOC and SON and soil structure (pore size distribution and aggregate stability), and connected changes with cover crop-related variables.


We used a six-year experiment with different winter cover crops in a maize-soybean rotation under no tillage with or without N fertilization of maize (32 kg ha−1).


Most cover crops increased SOC (0.36 ± 0.23 Mg ha−1 yr.−1) and vetch also increased SON in the absence of N fertilization. With cover crops, N storage shifted from inorganic to more stable organic forms (SON and cover crop biomass). Cover crops except forage radish increased soil porosity favoring 300–60 μm macropores (0–10 cm depth). Soil aggregation at 0–5 cm depth was more stable with than without cover crops (43 and 25%, respectively). The effect of glomalin as aggregation agent was observed in the absence of N fertilization.


Increased N retention and input (in the case of vetch), combined with C input from cover crops, increased organic reserves and improved soil structure, enabling N fertilization reduction.


Cropping intensity Soil organic carbon and nitrogen Soil structure Glomalin Nitrogen balance 



This research was supported by the Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria (INTA, Argentina) through project PNSUELO 1134042. The authors are grateful to Juliana Torti, Leticia García and Jimena Dalpiaz for laboratory assistance and to Diego Colombini, Fabio Villalba, Adolfo Sosa and Alberto Rondán for field assistance. Diego Chavarria collaborated with the determination of soil glomalin concentration at the Instituto de Patología Vegetal (IPAVE-INTA, Argentina). We are especially grateful to Jorge Mercau who thoroughly reviewed our work and contributed with significant input.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Grupo Gestión Ambiental, Estación Experimental Agropecuaria PergaminoINTA (Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria)Buenos AiresArgentina
  2. 2.Escuela Politécnica de HuescaUniversidad de ZaragozaHuescaSpain
  3. 3.Departamento de Estadística, Estación Experimental Agropecuaria PergaminoINTA (Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria)Buenos AiresArgentina

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