Nitrate leaching to subsurface drains as affected by drain spacing and changes in crop production system

J Environ Qual. 2004 Sep-Oct;33(5):1803-13. doi: 10.2134/jeq2004.1803.


Subsurface drainage is a beneficial water management practice in poorly drained soils but may also contribute substantial nitrate N loads to surface waters. This paper summarizes results from a 15-yr drainage study in Indiana that includes three drain spacings (5, 10, and 20 m) managed for 10 yr with chisel tillage in monoculture corn (Zea mays L.) and currently managed under a no-till corn-soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr.] rotation. In general, drainflow and nitrate N losses per unit area were greater for narrower drain spacings. Drainflow removed between 8 and 26% of annual rainfall, depending on year and drain spacing. Nitrate N concentrations in drainflow did not vary with spacing, but concentrations have significantly decreased from the beginning to the end of the experiment. Flow-weighted mean concentrations decreased from 28 mg L(-1) in the 1986-1988 period to 8 mg L(-1) in the 1997-1999 period. The reduction in concentration was due to both a reduction in fertilizer N rates over the study period and to the addition of a winter cover crop as a "trap crop" after corn in the corn-soybean rotation. Annual nitrate N loads decreased from 38 kg ha(-1) in the 1986-1988 period to 15 kg ha(-1) in the 1997-1999 period. Most of the nitrate N losses occurred during the fallow season, when most of the drainage occurred. Results of this study underscore the necessity of long-term research on different soil types and in different climatic zones, to develop appropriate management strategies for both economic crop production and protection of environmental quality.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture*
  • Engineering
  • Glycine max
  • Nitrogen / analysis*
  • Seasons
  • Soil
  • Solubility
  • Water Supply*
  • Zea mays


  • Soil
  • Nitrogen