Reducing nitrate loss in tile drainage water with cover crops and water-table management systems
Drury, C.F.; Tan, C.S.; Welacky, T.W.; Reynolds, W.D.; Zhang, T.Q.; Oloya, T.O.; McLaughlin, N.B.; Gaynor, J.D.
Journal of Environmental Quality 43(2): 587-598
ISSN/ISBN: 0047-2425 PMID: 25602660 DOI: 10.2134/jeq2012.0495
Nitrate lost from agricultural soils is an economic cost to producers, an environmental concern when it enters rivers and lakes, and a health risk when it enters wells and aquifers used for drinking water. Planting a winter wheat cover crop (CC) and/or use of controlled tile drainage-subirrigation (CDS) may reduce losses of nitrate (NO) relative to no cover crop (NCC) and/or traditional unrestricted tile drainage (UTD). A 6-yr (1999-2005) corn-soybean study was conducted to determine the effectiveness of CC+CDS, CC+UTD, NCC+CDS, and NCC+UTD treatments for reducing NO loss. Flow volume and NO concentration in surface runoff and tile drainage were measured continuously, and CC reduced the 5-yr flow-weighted mean (FWM) NO concentration in tile drainage water by 21 to 38% and cumulative NO loss by 14 to 16% relative to NCC. Controlled tile drainage-subirrigation reduced FWM NO concentration by 15 to 33% and cumulative NO loss by 38 to 39% relative to UTD. When CC and CDS were combined, 5-yr cumulative FWM NO concentrations and loss in tile drainage were decreased by 47% (from 9.45 to 4.99 mg N L and from 102 to 53.6 kg N ha) relative to NCC+UTD. The reductions in runoff and concomitant increases in tile drainage under CC occurred primarily because of increases in near-surface soil hydraulic conductivity. Cover crops increased corn grain yields by 4 to 7% in 2004 increased 3-yr average soybean yields by 8 to 15%, whereas CDS did not affect corn or soybean yields over the 6 yr. The combined use of a cover crop and water-table management system was highly effective for reducing NO loss from cool, humid agricultural soils.