Limiting Nitrogen Immobilization in Cover Crop Systems

September 25, 2017

Limiting Nitrogen Immobilization in Cover Crop Systems
Funded by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy

Issue: Cover crops have significant potential to improve water quality by limiting erosion when row crops are not growing, and by limiting the loss of nitrogen by leaching. Yet widespread adoption has been limited, as the yield of subsequent-year corn crops may be negatively affected by cover crops. One reason for this is the potential for immobilization of nitrogen from soil organic matter as cover crop residues decompose.

Objective: This project will look at ways to fine-tune cover crop management so immobilization is unlikely and nitrogen can be mineralized for crop use. Two hypotheses will be tested. One is that limited nitrogen amendments to the soil at the time crop residues begin to decompose will promote rapid residue decomposition, yet limit immobilization of soil nitrogen. Two is the amount and composition of mineralized nitrogen will depend on the concentration of residues in the soil, the carbon-to-nitrogen ratios of the residues, and water content of the soil during decomposition.

Approach: This study will be based on soil and cropping systems in the current Comparison of Biofuel Cropping Systems (COBS) experiment at Iowa State University. The COBS project was established in 2007 to provide a large-scale, side-by-side comparison of several annual and perennial cropping systems, including continuous corn grown with and without a rye cover crop. This laboratory-based, soil incubation experiment involves the collection of soil samples and root residues from eight plots in the COBS experiment. The incubation experiment will employ specially designed glass columns. Three levels of residue concentrations and three levels of nitrogen amendment will be mixed with collected soil materials and root residues. Over an eightweek period, the samples will receive a range of treatments, and various measurements will be taken.

Investigators: Michael Thompson, Professor, Agronomy, Iowa State University Matt Liebman, Professor, Agronomy, Iowa State University Matthew Helmers, Professor, Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, Iowa State University