, Volume 93, Issue 1–2, pp 7–30 | Cite as

Modeling denitrification in a tile-drained, corn and soybean agroecosystem of Illinois, USA

  • Mark B. DavidEmail author
  • Stephen J. Del Grosso
  • Xuetao Hu
  • Elizabeth P. Marshall
  • Gregory F. McIsaac
  • William J. Parton
  • Christina Tonitto
  • Mohamed A. Youssef


Denitrification is known as an important pathway for nitrate loss in agroecosystems. It is important to estimate denitrification fluxes to close field and watershed N mass balances, determine greenhouse gas emissions (N2O), and help constrain estimates of other major N fluxes (e.g., nitrate leaching, mineralization, nitrification). We compared predicted denitrification estimates for a typical corn and soybean agroecosystem on a tile drained Mollisol from five models (DAYCENT, SWAT, EPIC, DRAINMOD-N II and two versions of DNDC, 82a and 82h), after first calibrating each model to crop yields, water flux, and nitrate leaching. Known annual crop yields and daily flux values (water, nitrate-N) for 1993–2006 were provided, along with daily environmental variables (air temperature, precipitation) and soil characteristics. Measured denitrification fluxes were not available. Model output for 1997–2006 was then compared for a range of annual, monthly and daily fluxes. Each model was able to estimate corn and soybean yields accurately, and most did well in estimating riverine water and nitrate-N fluxes (1997–2006 mean measured nitrate-N loss 28 kg N ha−1 year−1, model range 21–28 kg N ha−1 year−1). Monthly patterns in observed riverine nitrate-N flux were generally reflected in model output (r 2 values ranged from 0.51 to 0.76). Nitrogen fluxes that did not have corresponding measurements were quite variable across the models, including 10-year average denitrification estimates, ranging from 3.8 to 21 kg N ha−1 year−1 and substantial variability in simulated soybean N2 fixation, N harvest, and the change in soil organic N pools. DNDC82a and DAYCENT gave comparatively low estimates of total denitrification flux (3.8 and 5.6 kg N ha−1 year−1, respectively) with similar patterns controlled primarily by moisture. DNDC82h predicted similar fluxes until 2003, when estimates were abruptly much greater. SWAT and DRAINMOD predicted larger denitrification fluxes (about 17–18 kg N ha−1 year−1) with monthly values that were similar. EPIC denitrification was intermediate between all models (11 kg N ha−1 year−1). Predicted daily fluxes during a high precipitation year (2002) varied considerably among models regardless of whether the models had comparable annual fluxes for the years. Some models predicted large denitrification fluxes for a few days, whereas others predicted large fluxes persisting for several weeks to months. Modeled denitrification fluxes were controlled mainly by soil moisture status and nitrate available to be denitrified, and the way denitrification in each model responded to moisture status greatly determined the flux. Because denitrification is dependent on the amount of nitrate available at any given time, modeled differences in other components of the N cycle (e.g., N2 fixation, N harvest, change in soil N storage) no doubt led to differences in predicted denitrification. Model comparisons suggest our ability to accurately predict denitrification fluxes (without known values) from the dominant agroecosystem in the midwestern Illinois is quite uncertain at this time.


Crop yields Mollisol N2Nitrate Soil moisture 



This comparison was a result of the Denitrification Research Coordination Network workshop on Denitrification Modeling Across Terrestrial, Freshwater and Marine Systems held November 28–30, 2006. We thank the co-chairs Sybil Seitzinger, Eric Davidson, Peter Groffman, Elizabeth Boyer, and Rosalynn Lee for organizing the workshop, which was funded by the National Science Foundation (DEB—0443439). Support for MBD, EPM, and CT was provided by an NSF Biocomplexity in the Environment, Coupled Natural-Human Cycles Program grant (BCS—0508028).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mark B. David
    • 1
    Email author
  • Stephen J. Del Grosso
    • 2
  • Xuetao Hu
    • 3
  • Elizabeth P. Marshall
    • 4
  • Gregory F. McIsaac
    • 1
  • William J. Parton
    • 5
  • Christina Tonitto
    • 6
  • Mohamed A. Youssef
    • 7
  1. 1.Department of Natural Resources and Environmental SciencesUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignUrbanaUSA
  2. 2.USDA-ARS, Natural Resources Research CenterFort CollinsUSA
  3. 3.Department of Civil and Environmental EngineeringUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignUrbanaUSA
  4. 4.World Resources InstituteWashingtonUSA
  5. 5.Natural Resource Ecology LaboratoryColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  6. 6.Department of HorticultureCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  7. 7.Department of Biological and Agricultural EngineeringNorth Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA

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