Split-nitrogen application with cover cropping reduces subsurface nitrate losses while maintaining corn yields

J Environ Qual. 2021 Aug 14. doi: 10.1002/jeq2.20283. Online ahead of print.


Artificial subsurface drainage is essential to sustain crop production in many areas but may also impair water quality by exacerbating nitrate (NO3 )-nitrogen (N) delivery downstream. Cover crops and split-N application have been promoted as key conservation practices for reducing NO3 -N losses, but few studies have simultaneously assessed their effect on water quality and crop productivity. A field study was conducted to evaluate the effects of N application timing and cover crops on subsurface drainage NO3 -N losses and grain yield in continuous corn (Zea mays L.). Treatments were preplant-N: 224 kg N ha-1 split-applied with 60% fall + 40% preplant in 2018, or as single preplant applications in 2019 and 2020; split-N: 40% preplant + 60% side-dress (V6-V7); split-N + cover crop (CC): Split-N + cereal rye (Secale cereale L.); and a zero N plot as the control. Across the 3-yr study period, split-N + CC significantly reduced flow-weighted NO3 -N concentration and NO3 -N loss by 35 and 37%, respectively, compared with preplant-N. However, flow-weighted NO3 -N concentration (4.3 mg L-1 ) and NO3 -N loss (22.4 kg ha-1 ) with split-N were not significantly different from either preplant-N (4.8 mg L-1 and 26.4 kg ha-1 , respectively) or split-N + CC (3.1 mg L-1 and 16.7 kg ha-1 , respectively). Corn yield was significantly lower in the control treatment but did not differ among N fertilized treatments in any year. These results indicate that combining split-N application with cover crops holds promise for meeting the statewide interim milestone NO3 -N reduction target of 15% by 2025 without negatively impacting crop productivity.