Effectiveness of cover crops for water pollutant reduction from agricultural areas

Reid Christianson, Jordan Fox, Neely Law, Carol Wong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Mitigating nutrient losses from agricultural fields retains these nutrients for subsequent crop production and reduces the risk to downstream water quality. This study evaluated the impact of cover crops, as part of an annual cropping system, on reducing nutrient losses and enhancing water quality. Cover crop literature focusing on water quality was reviewed to determine important factors regarding cover crop performance and cost. Results show that a grass-based cover crop and mixes with grasses tend to increase nitrate loss reduction (40%) compared to legumes (negligible). Biomass growth was also important, with early seeding or growth of a cover crop in areas with increased growing degree days enhancing performance. For phosphorus loss, benefits did not necessarily increase with increasing biomass. Further, dissolved phosphorus concentrations may increase due to freeze-thaw cycles (23%), although overall dissolved phosphorus losses tend to decrease due to less runoff (34%). Cover crop implementation costs ranged from a savings of $25 to $44 ha-1 year-1 before soybeans and corn, respectively, when implementing a cover crop for five straight years to a cost of $193 ha-1 year-1. Including a cover crop in annual crop rotations with adequate time in the fall for germination and growth can reduce nitrogen and phosphorus losses from production agriculture to help meet water quality goals across the U.S.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1007-1017
Number of pages11
JournalTransactions of the ASABE
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2021


  • Catch crop
  • NRCS
  • Nitrogen
  • Phosphorus
  • Practice Code 340
  • USDA
  • Water quality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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