The role of cover crops in agroecosystem functioning

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Virginia Tech


Current interest in cover cropping is focused on enhancing ecosystem services beyond soil conservation. Cover crop (CC) species function uniquely in their effects on ecosystem services when grown in monoculture or mixtures. This research integrated field experiments and a literature synthesis to evaluate the role of cover crops in improving nitrogen (N) management and simultaneously providing multiple ecosystem services. Legume CC fertilized with poultry litter (PL) could replace 101 to 117 kg N ha-1 of fertilizer in corn (Zea mays L.) production. Rye (Secale cereale L.) CC fertilized with PL had a negligible effect on corn production. Biculture fertilizer equivalence ranged between -12 to +75 kg N ha-1. Fertilizer equivalence of legume-containing treatments increased across time. Without CC, fall-applied PL failed to supply N to corn. Ecosystem services of CC and PL illustrate complex species functions. Bicultures produced more total biomass than monocultures in year 1 but less than rye in year 2. Bicultures were as effective in suppressing weeds as rye, produced corn yield similar to legume, and by the second year had similar amounts of available soil N as the legume. Poultry litter effects and interspecific effects cover crop species biomass differed. Rye yield increased, while legume yield decreased slightly in biculture. Poultry litter increased legume N content and a decrease in legume C:N, while rye N content and C:N were unaffected. The synthesis corroborates that mixed and biculture cover crops yield more than the individual component species. Overyielding was transgressive in 60% of cases studied. Mixture effects varied by species: rye and brassica yield increased, while legume decreased in mixtures. The effect of mixed CC on crop yields varied by crop species and management practices, though generally crops increased 8 to 18% overall. This work can be applied to the design of complex CC and PL systems that optimize individual species functions to enhance ecosystem services.



cover crop, N conservation, corn, Zea mays, fertilizer equivalence, N credits, rye, hairy vetch