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


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.


bare fallow cover crops N mineralization spring barley winter barley 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Addiscott, T M, Whitmore, A P, Powlson, D S 1991Farming, Fertilizers and the Nitrate ProblemCAB InternationalWallingford, Oxon, UKGoogle Scholar
  2. Allison, M F, Armstrong, M J, Jaggard, K W, Todd, A D 1998aIntegration of nitrate cover crops into sugarbeet (Beta vulgaris) rotations. I. Management and effectiveness of nitrate cover cropsJ. Agric. Sci. (Cambridge)1305360Google Scholar
  3. Allison, M F, Armstrong, M J, Jaggard, K W, Todd, A D 1998bIntegration of nitrate cover crops into sugarbeet (Beta vulgaris) rotations. II. Effect of cover crops on growth, yield and N requirement of sugarbeetJ. Agric. Sci. (Cambridge)1306167Google Scholar
  4. Anon,  1980EEC/80/778: The quality of water intended for human consumptionOfficial Journal of the European CommunitiesLuxembourg L229Google Scholar
  5. Anon,  1990Yields of the field experimentsInstitute of Arable Crops ResearchRothamsted Experimental Station Harpenden UKGoogle Scholar
  6. Anon,  1991EEC/91/676: The protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sourcesOfficial Journal of the European CommunitiesLuxembourg L375Google Scholar
  7. Anon,  1994The nitrate sensitive areas schemeHMSO LondonUKMAFF booklet PB 1729Google Scholar
  8. Anon,  1998Guidelines for farmers in NVZ’sHMSO LondonUKMAFF booklet PB 3277Google Scholar
  9. Anon,  2000Establishing a framework for community action in the field of water policyOfficial Journal of the European CommunitiesLuxembourgDirective 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the CouncilGoogle Scholar
  10. Anon,  2002Guidelines for farmers in NVZs – EnglandHMSO LondonUKrevised edition,DEFRA booklet PB5005Google Scholar
  11. Archer J R 1992 UK nitrate policy implementation. Aspects of Applied Biology 30, Nitrate and Farming Systems.pp. 11–18. AAB c/o HRI, Wellesbourne, Warwick, UK.Google Scholar
  12. Avery, B W, Catt, J A 1995The soil at RothamstedLawes Agricultural TrustHarpenden, UKGoogle Scholar
  13. Catt J A, Weir A H, Norrish R E, Rayner J H, King D W, Hall D G M and Murphy C P 1979. The soils of Woburn Experimental Farm III. pp 5–39. Stackyard. Rothamsted Report 1979, Part 2.Google Scholar
  14. Christian D G, Goodlass G and Powlson D S 1992 Nitrogen uptake by cover crops. Aspects of Applied Biology 30, Nitrate and Farming Systems. pp. 291–300. AAB c/o HRI, Wellesbourne Warwick, UK.Google Scholar
  15. Crooke, W M, Simpson, W E 1970Determination of ammonium in Kjeldahl digests of crops by an automated procedureJ. Sci. Fd. Agric.22910Google Scholar
  16. Davies, D B, Sylvester-Bradley, R 1995The contribution of N to leachable nitrogen in the UK, A reviewJ. Sci. Fd. Agric.68399406Google Scholar
  17. Davies, D B, Garwood, T W D, Rochford, A D H 1996Factors affecting nitrate leaching from a calcareous loam in East AngliaJ. Agric. Sci. (Cambridge)1267586Google Scholar
  18. Glendining, M J, Poulton, P R, Powlson, D S, Jenkinson, D S 1997Fate of 15N-labelled fertilizer applied to spring barley grown on soils of contrasting nutrient statusPlant Soil.1958398CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Glendining, M J, Poulton, P R, Powlson, D S, Macdonald, A J, Jenkinson, D S 2001Availability of the residual nitrogen from a single application of 15N-labelled fertilizer to subsequent crops in a long-term continuous barley experimentPlant Soil.233231239CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Goulding, K W T, Poulton, P R, Webster, C P, Howe, M T 2000Nitrate leaching from the Broadbalk Wheat Experiment, Rothamsted, UK, as influenced by fertilizer and manure inputs and the weatherSoil Use Manage.16244250Google Scholar
  21. Henriksen, A, Selmer-Olsen, A R 1970Automatic methods for determining nitrate and nitrite in water and soil extractsAnal. Lond.95514518Google Scholar
  22. Jensen, E S 1991Nitrogen accumulation and residual effects of nitrogen catch cropsActa Agric Scand.41333344Google Scholar
  23. Justes E and Mary B 2004 N mineralisation from decomposition of catch crop residues under field conditions: measurement and simulation using the STICS soil-crop model. In Controlling nitrogen flows and losses. Eds Hatch D.J. et al., pp. 122–130. Wageningen Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  24. Kenwood, M 1987A method for comparing profiles of repeated measurementsApp Statistics.36296308Google Scholar
  25. Leach, K A, Goulding, K W T, Hatch, D J, Conway, J S, Allingham, K D,  et al. 2004Nitrogen balances over seven years on a mixed farm in the CotswoldsHatch, D eds. Controlling Nitrogen Flows and LossesWageningen Academic PublishersThe Netherlands3946Google Scholar
  26. Lewan, E 1994Effects of a catch crop on leaching of nitrogen from a sandy soil: simulations and measurementsPlant Soil166137152Google Scholar
  27. Lord, E I, Johnson, P A, Archer, J R 1999Nitrate sensitive areas: a study of large scale control of nitrate loss in EnglandSoil Use Manage.15201207Google Scholar
  28. Lord, E I, Shepherd, M A 1993Developments in the use of porous ceramic cups for measuring nitrate leachingJ. Soil. Sci.44435449Google Scholar
  29. Macdonald A J 2000 The effects of cover crops on soil N transformations and losses from arable land. Ph.D. Thesis. pp. 78–138. The University of Reading, Faculty of Agriculture and Food.Google Scholar
  30. Macdonald, A J, Poulton, P R, Powlson, D S, Jenkinson, D S 1997Effects of season, soil type and cropping on recoveries, residues and losses of 15N-labelled fertilizer applied to arable crops in springJ. Agric Sci. (Cambridge)129125154Google Scholar
  31. Martinez, J, Guiraud, G 1990A lysimeter study of the effects of a ryegrass catch crop, during a winter wheat/maize rotation, on nitrate leaching and on the following cropJ. Soil Sci.41516Google Scholar
  32. Muller, J C, Denys, D, Morlet, G, Mariotti, A 1989Influence of catch crops on mineral N leaching and its subsequent plant useGermon, J C eds. Management systems to reduce the impact of nitrates on farming systemsElsevier Applied ScienceLondon8598Google Scholar
  33. Payne R W, Lane P W, Digby P B N, Harding S A, Leech P K, Morgan G W, Todd A D, Thomson R, Tunnicliffe Wilson G, Wellham S J and White R P 1993. In: Genstat 5 Release 3 reference manual. Clarendon press, Oxford. 796 pp.Google Scholar
  34. Rideout M S and Payne R W 1993 Procedure ANTORDER. In: Genstat 5 Procedure Library Manual Release 3.1. pp. 41–43. Numerical Algorithms Group Ltd, Oxford, UK.Google Scholar
  35. Schröder, J J, Ten Holte, L, Janssen, B H 1997Non-overwintering cover crops: a significant source of NNetherlands Journal of Agricultural Science45231248Google Scholar
  36. Shepherd, M A 1999The Effectiveness of cover crops during eight years of a UK sandland rotationSoil Use Manage.154148Google Scholar
  37. Silgram, M, Shepherd, M A 1999The effect of cultivation on soil nitrogen mineralizationAdv. Agron.65267311Google Scholar
  38. Sorensen, J N, Thorup-Kristensen, K 1993Nitrogen effects of catch cropsZ Pflanzenernahr Bodenk1565559Google Scholar
  39. Thomsen, I K, Christensen, B T 1999Nitrogen conserving potential of successive ryegrass catch crops in continuous spring barleySoil Use Manage.15195200Google Scholar
  40. Thorup-Kristensen, K 1993Root development of nitrogen catch crops and of a succeeding crop of broccoliActa Agric. Scand. Sect B, Soil Plant Sci.435864Google Scholar
  41. Thorup-Kristensen, K 1994An easy pot incubation method for measuring nitrogen mineralization from easily decomposable organic material under well defined conditionsFertil. Res.38239247CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Thorup-Kristensen, K 2001Are differences in root growth of nitrogen catch crops important for their ability to reduce soil nitrate-N content, and how can this be measured?Plant Soil.230185195CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Thorup-Kristensen, K, Magid, J, Jensen, L S 2003Catch crops and green manures as biological tools in nitrogen management in temperate zonesAdv. Agron.79227302Google Scholar
  44. Vos, J, Putten, P E L 1997Field observations on nitrogen catch crops. I. Potential and actual growth and nitrogen accumulation in relation to sowing date and crop speciesPlant Soil.195299309CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Webster, C P, Shepherd, M A, Goulding, K W T, Lord, E 1993Comparison of methods for measuring the leaching of mineral nitrogen from arable landJ. Soil Sci.444962Google Scholar

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

Personalised recommendations