Use of N immobilization to tighten the N cycle in conventional agroecosystems

Claire P. McSwiney, Sieglinde S. Snapp, Lowell E. Gentry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Soils in conventional agroecosystems are purposely held in a nitrogen (N)-saturated state to maximize crop yields. Planting winter annual cover crops when fields are usually fallow has been proposed to ameliorate N losses from soils. In this study we introduced winter annual cover crops into an N rate study with plots fertilized at 0, 34, 67, 101, 134, 168, and 202 kg N/ha in maize (Zea mays L.) to determine how winter annual cover crops affect yields, N2O and NO3-2 fluxes, and N pools. At the six-leaf stage and during flowering, incorporation of cover crop into soil resulted in a 30% reduction in maize biomass. Three weeks after fertilization, KCl-extractable soil mineral N was 75-87% lower in covercropped soils than in no-cover soils, indicating that N had been immobilized in the covercropped soils. At physiological maturity, there was no difference between cover and no-cover treatments in crop yield, which was maximized at 9 Mg/ha in 2006 and 7 Mg/ha in 2007. Where N rates exceed crop requirements, cover crop incorporation may reduce N exports as NO 3-and N2O. Tighter N cycling in conventional agroecosystems could be fostered by matching N rates to the amount of N removed with grain and using N immobilization to retain N and support yields. If N immobilization is viewed as a means for efficient fertilizer N use rather than a process that decreases crop productivity, growers might be more willing to adopt cover-cropping practices.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)648-662
Number of pages15
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Cereal rye
  • Cover crop
  • Maize
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrogen rate study
  • Nitrous oxide
  • Winter wheat

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


Dive into the research topics of 'Use of N immobilization to tighten the N cycle in conventional agroecosystems'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this