Articles | Volume 13, issue 18
Research article
20 Sep 2016
Research article |  | 20 Sep 2016

Effect of cover crops on greenhouse gas emissions in an irrigated field under integrated soil fertility management

Guillermo Guardia, Diego Abalos, Sonia García-Marco, Miguel Quemada, María Alonso-Ayuso, Laura M. Cárdenas, Elizabeth R. Dixon, and Antonio Vallejo

Abstract. Agronomical and environmental benefits are associated with replacing winter fallow by cover crops (CCs). Yet, the effect of this practice on nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions remains poorly understood. In this context, a field experiment was carried out under Mediterranean conditions to evaluate the effect of replacing the traditional winter fallow (F) by vetch (Vicia sativa L.; V) or barley (Hordeum vulgare L.; B) on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during the intercrop and the maize (Zea mays L.) cropping period. The maize was fertilized following integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) criteria. Maize nitrogen (N) uptake, soil mineral N concentrations, soil temperature and moisture, dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and GHG fluxes were measured during the experiment. Our management (adjusted N synthetic rates due to ISFM) and pedo-climatic conditions resulted in low cumulative N2O emissions (0.57 to 0.75 kg N2O-N ha−1 yr−1), yield-scaled N2O emissions (3–6 g N2O-N kg aboveground N uptake−1) and N surplus (31 to 56 kg N ha−1) for all treatments. Although CCs increased N2O emissions during the intercrop period compared to F (1.6 and 2.6 times in B and V, respectively), the ISFM resulted in similar cumulative emissions for the CCs and F at the end of the maize cropping period. The higher C : N ratio of the B residue led to a greater proportion of N2O losses from the synthetic fertilizer in these plots when compared to V. No significant differences were observed in CH4 and CO2 fluxes at the end of the experiment. This study shows that the use of both legume and nonlegume CCs combined with ISFM could provide, in addition to the advantages reported in previous studies, an opportunity to maximize agronomic efficiency (lowering synthetic N requirements for the subsequent cash crop) without increasing cumulative or yield-scaled N2O losses.

Short summary
We carried out a field experiment to evaluate the effect of replacing traditional winter fallow with cover crops (CCs) on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Our results showed that the use of CCs should be recommended as a tool for reducing fertilizer nitrogen (N) input without increasing GHG losses – in the whole intercrop–maize cycle – or penalizing maize yields, if fertilizers are applied taking into account soil mineral N and N from CC residues.
Final-revised paper