Bressler, A. and J. Blesh. 2023. A grass–legume cover crop maintains nitrogen inputs and nitrous oxide fluxes from an organic agroecosystem. Ecosphere 14:e4428.
Legume cover crops are central to an ecological nutrient management approach that can reduce nitrogen (N) losses from agriculture. Diversifying cropping systems with a legume-grass cover crop mixture could further reduce N losses by increasing soil N assimilation and synchronizing N mineralization with N uptake by the following crop. We established four winter cover crop treatments (crimson clover, cereal rye, clover?rye mixture, and weedy fallow control) in an organic grain agroecosystem that had been managed for 30 years with a legume cover crop as the only external N source. We hypothesized that the legume?grass mixture would provide similar inputs of biologically fixed N2 compared with the sole legume, while reducing N2O emissions during decomposition following tillage. We measured cover crop aboveground biomass C:N and clover N2 fixation, soil inorganic N and N2O fluxes throughout the corn growing season following cover crop tillage, and corn N assimilation at harvest. Even with a reduced clover seeding rate in mixture, the clover and mixture treatments had similar fixed N inputs, litter N and C:N, and no differences in cumulative N2O emissions. During the first peak flux, N2O emissions were 2-5 times higher in clover and mixture relative to rye and fallow, with no differences between clover and mixture. There were no treatment differences at the second N2O peak, which followed the first major rain event. We contextualized these findings by calculating a 6-year partial N mass balance for this agroecosystem, which was slightly negative (6.8±0.8 kg N ha-1 year-1) when accounting for historical mean annual N2O emissions and nitrate leaching. Overall, N inputs and harvested N exports were approximately in balance for this legume-based crop rotation, suggesting that the legacy of ecological nutrient management has promoted efficient N cycling. However, results from our field experiment indicate that short-term N2O flux rates following cover crop incorporation can be high even for a legume?grass mixture. Additional strategies to reduce soil disturbance are therefore needed to further tighten N cycling in organic grain agroecosystems.
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