Miscanthus × giganteus is often regarded as one of the most promising crops to produce sustainable bioenergy. This perennial crop, renowned for its high productivity associated with low input requirements, in particular regarding fertilizers, is thought to have low environmental impacts, but few data are available to confirm this. Our study aimed at assessing nitrate leaching from Miscanthus × giganteus crops in farmers' fields, thus including a wide range of soil and cropping system conditions. We focused on the first years of growth after planting as experimental studies have suggested that Miscanthus × giganteus, once established, results in low nitrate leaching. We combined on-farm measurements and modeling to estimate drainage, leached nitrogen, and nitrate concentration in drainage water in 38 fields located in Center-East France during two winters (November 2010 to March 2011, November 2011 to March 2012).
Nitrate leaching and nitrate concentration in drainage water were on average very low. Nitrate leaching averaged 6 kg N ha−1 whereas nitrate concentration averaged 12 mg l−1. These low values are attributable to the low estimates of drainage water (mean = 166 mm) but also to the low soil mineral nitrogen contents measured at the beginning of winter (mean = 37 kg N ha−1). Our results were, however, very variable, mainly due to the crop age: nitrate leaching and nitrate concentration were critically higher during the winter following the first growth year of Miscanthus × giganteus, reflecting the low development of the crop. This variability was also explained by the range of soil and cropping conditions explored in the on-farm design: shallow and/or sandy soils as well as fields where establishment failed had a higher risk of nitrate leaching.