Effectiveness of conservation crop rotation for water pollutant reduction from agricultural areas

Lydia Koropeckyj-Cox, Reid D. Christianson, Yongping Yuan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Legumes included in corn-based crop rotation systems provide a variety of benefits to the subsequent crops and potentially to the environment. This review aims to synthesize available data from the literature on legume N credits and the effects of crop rotations on water quality, as well as to analyze the cost benefits associated with different legume-corn rotation systems. We found that there was much variation in reported values for legume N credits to subsequent corn crops, from both empirical results and recommendations made by U.S. land grant universities. But despite inherent complexity, accounting for this contribution is critical when estimating optimal N fertilizer application rates as part of nutrient management. Results from research on the influence of crop rotations on water quality show that including legumes in corn-based rotation systems generally decreases nitrate-N concentrations in subsurface drainage discharge. Our cost analysis showed that incorporating legumes in cropping systems reduced N fertilizer and pesticide costs compared to conventional cropping systems, i.e., continuous corn and corn-soybean rotations, but extended rotations, such as corn-soybean-alfalfa-alfalfa-alfalfa, are not as profitable as conventional systems in the U.S. Midwest. In comparing continuous corn and corn-soybean rotations, although their impacts on water quality are not significantly different when using overall means from the literature data, corn-soybean rotations are more profitable than continuous corn. When using data from papers that directly compared the two, we found that switching from continuous corn to corn-soybean can provide a benefit of $5 per kg N loss reduction. The cost analysis methods used could be tailored to any location or management scenario with appropriate inputs and serve as a useful tool for assessing cost benefits for other agricultural conservation practices. Legume-corn crop rotations have the potential to be an effective conservation practice with the ultimate goal of improving water quality, and, with further research, these rotations could be made even more effective by integrating them into a multipractice system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)691-704
Number of pages14
JournalTransactions of the ASABE
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2021


  • Conservation practice
  • Cost analysis
  • Crop rotation
  • Nitrate
  • Nutrient management
  • Water quality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Food Science
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Soil Science


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