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Plant and Soil

, Volume 273, Issue 1–2, pp 355–373 | Cite as

The use of cover crops in cereal-based cropping systems to control nitrate leaching in SE England

  • A. J. Macdonald
  • P. R. Poulton
  • M. T. Howe
  • K. W. T. Goulding
  • D. S. Powlson
Article

Abstract

Field experiments were done to evaluate the extent to which cover crops can be used to help farmers comply with current legislation on nitrate leaching from arable land in nitrate vulnerable zones. Nitrate leaching was measured in sandy loam and chalky loam soils under a range of early sown (mid-August) cover crops at two sites in SE England, and in the subsequent winter following their incorporation. Cover crop species tested were forage rape, rye, white mustard, a rye/white mustard mixture, Phacelia and ryegrass. Additional treatments were weeds plus cereal volunteers, a bare fallow and a conventional winter barley crop sown one month later than the cover crops and grown to maturity. Cover crop and bare fallow treatments were followed by spring barley. This was followed by winter barley, as was the conventional winter barley crop. In the winter immediately after establishment, early sown cover crops decreased nitrate leaching by 29–91% compared to bare fallow. They were most effective in a wet winter on the sandy loam where nitrate leaching under bare fallow was greatest. There was little difference between cover crop species with respect to their capacity to decrease nitrate leaching, but losses were consistently smaller under forage rape. The growth of weeds plus cereal volunteers significantly decreased nitrate leaching on the sandy loam compared with a bare fallow, but was less effective on the chalky loam. Nitrate leaching under the later sown winter barley was often greater than under cover crops, but under dry conditions leaching losses were similar. In the longer-term, in most cases, the inclusion of cover crops in predominantly cereal-based cropping systems did not significantly decrease cumulative nitrate leaching compared with two successive winter cereals. In summary, early sown cover crops are most likely to be effective when grown on freely drained sandy soils where the risk of nitrate leaching is greatest. They are less likely to be effective on poorer drained, medium-heavy textured soils in the driest parts of SE England. In these areas the regeneration of weeds and cereal volunteers together with some additional broadcast seed may be sufficient to avoid excessive nitrate losses. In the short-term, mineralization of N derived from the relatively small cover crops grown once every 3–4 years in cereal-based cropping systems is unlikely to contribute greatly to nitrate leaching in later years and adjustments to fertilizer N recommendations will not usually be necessary.

Keywords

bare fallow cover crops N mineralization spring barley winter barley 

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Copyright information

© Springer 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • A. J. Macdonald
    • 1
  • P. R. Poulton
    • 1
  • M. T. Howe
    • 1
  • K. W. T. Goulding
    • 1
  • D. S. Powlson
    • 1
  1. 1.Agriculture and the Environment DivisionRothamsted ResearchHertsUK

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