Cover-crop seeding-date influence on fall nitrogen recovery

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Abstract

Planting cover crops after corn-silage harvest could have a critical role in the recovery of residual N and N from fall-applied manure, which would otherwise be lost to the environment. Experiments were conducted at the University of Massachusetts Research Farm during the 2004–2006 growing seasons. Treatments consisted of oat and winter rye cover crops, and no cover crop, and four cover-crop dates of planting. The earliest planting dates of oat and winter rye produced the maximum biomass yield and resulted in the highest nitrate accumulation in both cover-crop species. The average nitrate accumulation for the 3 years in winter rye and oat at the earliest time of planting was 60 and 48 kg ha–1, respectively. In 2004 where the residual N level was high, winter rye accumulated 119 kg nitrate ha–1. While initially soil N levels were relatively high in early September they were almost zero at all sampling depths in all plots with and without cover crops later in the fall before the ground was frozen. However, in plots with cover crops, nitrate was accumulated in the cover-crop tissue, whereas in plots with no cover crop the nitrate was lost to the environment mainly through leaching. The seeding date of cover crops influenced the contribution of N available to the subsequent crop. Corn plants with no added fertilizer, yielded 41% and 34% more silage when planted after oat and rye, respectively, compared with the no–cover crop treatment. Corn-silage yield decreased linearly when planting of cover crops was delayed from early September to early or mid-October. Corn-ear yield was influenced more than silage by the species of cover crop and planting date. Similar to corn silage, ear yield was higher when corn was planted after oat. This could be attributed in part to the winter-kill of oat, giving it more time to decompose in the soil and subsequent greater release of N, while the rapidly increasing C : N ratio of rye can lessen availability to corn plants. Early plantings of cover crops increased corn-ear yield up to 59% compared with corn-ear yield planted after no cover crop.

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