American Journal of Alternative Agriculture


Cover crop management effects on soybean and corn growth and nitrogen dynamics in an on-farm study

D. L. Karlena1 and J. W. Dorana2

a1 Scientist, USDA-ARS, National Soil Tilth Laboratory, 2150 Pammel Drive, Ames, IA 50011.

a2 Soil Scientist, USDA-ARS, Soil and Water Conservation Research Unit, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Keim Hall, East Campus, Lincoln, NE 68583.


Combining cover crops and conservation tillage may result in more sustainable agricultural production practices. Objectives of this on-farm study were to quantify effects of cover crops on growth and nitrogen accumulation by soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr,] and corn (Zea mays L.) on a Nicollet loam (fine-loamy, mixed, mesic Aquic Hapludoll) near Boone, Iowa, Our farmer-cooperator planted soybean in 1988 using ridge tillage into an undisturbed strip with a hairy vetch (Vicia villosa L. Roth) cover crop and into a strip where previous crop residue and a negligible amount of cover crop had been incorporated by autumn and spring disking. In each strip, we established four plots for soil and plant measurements. Our cooperator planted corn on the same strips in 1989 into a cover crop that consisted of both hairy vetch and winter rye (Secale cereale L.). We determined the source of N accumulated by the corn by applying 67 kg N/ha of 15N depleted NH4NO3 fertilizer. In the absence of cover crops, early season soil NO3-N levels in the top 30 cm were higher, and corn growth and N accumulation were more rapid. At harvest, the corn grain, stover, and cob together accounted for 36 and 39 percent of the 15N fertilizer for the ridge tillage and disked treatments, respectively. We suggest that lower net mineralization of organic matter or greater denitrification losses before planting reduced the availability of soil N, This created an early season Nstress in corn grown with cover crops that was not overcome by broadcast fertilizer N applied three weeks after planting. Our on-farm research study has helped focus continuing efforts to determine if non-recovered fertilizer N is being immobilized in microbial biomass, lost by denitrification, or leached below the plant root zone.