Long-term winter cover cropping effects on corn (Zea mays L.) production and soil nitrogen availability
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This study was conducted to determine effects of long-term winter cover cropping with hairy vetch, cereal rye and annual ryegrass on soil N availability and corn productivity. From 1987 to 1995, with the exception of the first year of the study, the cover crops were seeded each year in late September or early October after the corn harvest and incorporated into the soil in late April or early May. Corn was seeded 10 days to 2 weeks after the cover crop residues had been incorporated, and N fertilizer was applied as a side-dressing at rates of 0, 67, 134, or 201 kg N ha–1 each year. While the average annual total N input from the above-ground biomass of the cover crops was highest for hairy vetch (72.4 kg N ha–1), the average annual total C input was highest for cereal rye (1043 kg C ha–1) compared with the other cover crops. Hairy vetch was the only cover crop that significantly increased pre-side-dressed NO3–-N (Ni) corn biomass and N uptake at 0 N. At an N fertilizer rate of 134 kg N ha–1 or higher, the cover crops had a minimal effect on corn biomass. This indicated that even after 9 years of winter cover cropping, the effect of the cover crops on corn growth resulted primarily from their influence on soil N availability. The amount of available N estimated from the cover crops (Nac) was significantly correlated with relative corn biomass production (r2=0.707, P<0.001). The total amount of available N, comprising Nac and N added from fertilizer (Nf), was strongly correlated (r2=0.820, P<0.001)) with relative corn biomass production. The correlation was also high for the available N comprising Ni and Nf (r2=0.775, P<0.001). Although cereal rye and annual ryegrass did not improve corn biomass production in the short term, they benefited soil organic N accumulation and gradually improved corn biomass production compared with the control over the long term.
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