Influence of rye cover cropping on denitrification potential and year-round field N2O emissions

Mary E Foltz, Angela D Kent, Sotiria Koloutsou-Vakakis, Julie L Zilles

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cover cropping is beneficial for reducing soil erosion and nutrient losses, but there are conflicting reports on how cover cropping affects emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas. In this study, we measured N2O fluxes over a full year in Illinois corn plots with and without rye cover crop. We compared these year-round measurements to N2O emissions predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Tier 1 equation and the Denitrification-Decomposition (DNDC) model. In addition, we measured potential denitrification and N2O production rates. The field measurements showed typical N2O peaks shortly after fertilizer application, as well as a significant late-winter peak. Cover cropping significantly reduced all peak N2O fluxes, with decreases ranging from 39 to 95%. Neither model was able to accurately predict annual N2O fluxes or the decrease in N2O emissions from cover-cropped fields. In contrast to field measurements, lab assays found that cover cropping significantly increased potential denitrification by 90-127% and potential N2O production by 54-106%. The rye cover-cropped plots had lower soil nitrate and higher soil carbon. When limiting nitrate and excess carbon were provided in lab assays, the proportion of N2O resulting from denitrification decreased. These results suggest that the discrepancy between the observed decrease in field N2O emissions and the increase in denitrification potential may be due to the difference in available nutrients between the field and laboratory measurements. Overall, these results suggest the importance of late-winter peaks in N2O emissions and the potential of rye cover cropping to reduce N2O emissions from agricultural fields.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number144295
Pages (from-to)144295
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Apr 15 2021


  • Agriculture
  • Denitrification
  • Fertilizers/analysis
  • Illinois
  • Nitrous Oxide/analysis
  • Secale
  • Soil
  • Corn
  • Denitrifying enzyme activity
  • Nitrous oxide
  • DNDC model

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pollution
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry


Dive into the research topics of 'Influence of rye cover cropping on denitrification potential and year-round field N2O emissions'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this