McSwiney, C. P., S. S. Snapp, and L. E. Gentry. 2010. Use of N immobilization to tighten the N cycle in conventional agroecosystems. Ecological Applications 20:648-662.

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Soils in conventional agroecosystems are purposely held in a nitrogen (N)-saturated state to maximize crop yields. Planting winter annual cover crops when fields are usually fallow has been proposed to ameliorate N losses from soils. In this study we introduced winter annual cover crops into an N rate study with plots fertilized at 0, 34, 67, 101, 134, 168, and 202 kg N/ha in maize (Zea mays L.) to determine how winter annual cover crops affect yields, N2O and NO3− fluxes, and N pools. At the six-leaf stage and during flowering, incorporation of cover crop into soil resulted in a 30% reduction in maize biomass. Three weeks after fertilization, KCl-extractable soil mineral N was 75–87% lower in cover-cropped soils than in no-cover soils, indicating that N had been immobilized in the cover-cropped soils. At physiological maturity, there was no difference between cover and no-cover treatments in crop yield, which was maximized at 9 Mg/ha in 2006 and 7 Mg/ha in 2007. Where N rates exceed crop requirements, cover crop incorporation may reduce N exports as NO3− and N2O. Tighter N cycling in conventional agroecosystems could be fostered by matching N rates to the amount of N removed with grain and using N immobilization to retain N and support yields. If N immobilization is viewed as a means for efficient fertilizer N use rather than a process that decreases crop productivity, growers might be more willing to adopt cover-cropping practices.

DOI: 10.1890/09-0077.1

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Living Field Lab

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