Rye cover crop and gamagrass strip effects on NO3 concentration and load in tile drainage

J Environ Qual. 2007 Aug 31;36(5):1503-11. doi: 10.2134/jeq2006.0468. Print 2007 Sep-Oct.


A significant portion of the NO3 from agricultural fields that contaminates surface waters in the Midwest Corn Belt is transported to streams or rivers by subsurface drainage systems or "tiles." Previous research has shown that N fertilizer management alone is not sufficient for reducing NO3 concentrations in subsurface drainage to acceptable levels; therefore, additional approaches need to be devised. We compared two cropping system modifications for NO3 concentration and load in subsurface drainage water for a no-till corn (Zea mays L.)-soybean (Glycine max [L.] Merr.) management system. In one treatment, eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides L.) was grown in permanent 3.05-m-wide strips above the tiles. For the second treatment, a rye (Secale cereale L.) winter cover crop was seeded over the entire plot area each year near harvest and chemically killed before planting the following spring. Twelve 30.5x42.7-m subsurface-drained field plots were established in 1999 with an automated system for measuring tile flow and collecting flow-weighted samples. Both treatments and a control were initiated in 2000 and replicated four times. Full establishment of both treatments did not occur until fall 2001 because of dry conditions. Treatment comparisons were conducted from 2002 through 2005. The rye cover crop treatment significantly reduced subsurface drainage water flow-weighted NO3 concentrations and NO3 loads in all 4 yr. The rye cover crop treatment did not significantly reduce cumulative annual drainage. Averaged over 4 yr, the rye cover crop reduced flow-weighted NO3 concentrations by 59% and loads by 61%. The gamagrass strips did not significantly reduce cumulative drainage, the average annual flow-weighted NO3 concentrations, or cumulative NO3 loads averaged over the 4 yr. Rye winter cover crops grown after corn and soybean have the potential to reduce the NO3 concentrations and loads delivered to surface waters by subsurface drainage systems.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture*
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Fertilizers / analysis*
  • Glycine max
  • Iowa
  • Nitrates / analysis*
  • Nitrates / metabolism
  • Nitrogen / metabolism
  • Poaceae / metabolism*
  • Seasons
  • Secale / metabolism*
  • Soil
  • Time Factors
  • Water Pollutants / analysis*
  • Water Pollutants / metabolism
  • Zea mays


  • Fertilizers
  • Nitrates
  • Soil
  • Water Pollutants
  • Nitrogen