Sustainable management of nitrogen nutrition in winter wheat through temporary intercropping with legumes

  • Marcello Guiducci
  • Giacomo Tosti
  • Beatrice Falcinelli
  • Paolo Benincasa
Research Article
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Fertilisation


Wheat-legume temporary intercropping with legume devitalization in late winter can increase the N self-sufficiency of cropping systems and improve the N nutrition of wheat as a cash crop. However, this practice has been scarcely investigated. In this study, carried out in a Mediterranean environment with cold winters, we compared 14 treatments over 3 years with different weather patterns: (A) pure stands of common wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) grown at 0, 40, 80, 120, 160 kg N ha−1; (B) pure stands of faba bean (Vicia faba L. minor), pea (Pisum sativum L.), and squarrose clover (Trifolium squarrosum L.); (C) temporary intercrops of wheat and faba bean, pea, or clover; and (D) permanent intercrops of wheat and the same legumes. In the temporary intercrops, all legumes improved the wheat N availability compared with the unfertilized control. The “N effect” of legumes for wheat was consistent across years and proportional to the competitive ability of the legumes, i.e., faba bean > pea > clover. The higher the legume competitive ability, the higher was its N accumulation before devitalization, and the higher/earlier was the N supplied to wheat. Our findings demonstrate that the date of legume devitalization represents a key factor to be managed each year in order to maximize legume N supply while preventing excessive legume competition, which could undermine wheat growth and yield. Such a modulation was not possible in permanent intercrops, where legume competition depressed wheat grain yield. The N supplied with legume devitalization increased wheat grain N accumulation during grain filling. This is the first work comparing temporary and permanent intercrops of wheat with different legumes and over different seasons. Overall, temporary intercropping appears to be a feasible and efficient tool for the sustainable management of N nutrition in winter wheat.


Fertilization Devitalization date LER Competition SPAD Vicia faba minor Pisum sativum Trifolium squarrosum 



This experiment was part of the NITBIO project funded by MIPAAF (Ministero Italiano delle Politiche Agricole, Alimentari e Forestali, Italy), scientific coordinator Prof. Marcello Guiducci.

The authors thank the FIELDLAB staff for their important contributions to crop management and data collection.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© INRA and Springer-Verlag France SAS, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences (DSA3)University of PerugiaPerugiaItaly

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