A critical review of the impacts of cover crops on nitrogen leaching, net greenhouse gas balance and crop productivity

M Abdalla*, A Hastings, Kun Cheng, Q Yue, David Chadwick, Mikk Espenberg, Jaak Truu, RM Rees, Pete Smith

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    337 Citations (Scopus)
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    Cover crops play an increasingly important role in improving soil quality, reducing agricultural inputs and improving environmental sustainability. The main objectives of this critical global review and systematic analysis were to assess cover crop practices in the context of their impacts on nitrogen leaching, net greenhouse gas balances (NGHGB) and crop productivity. Only studies that investigated the impacts of cover crops and measured one or a combination of nitrogen leaching, soil organic carbon (SOC), nitrous oxide (N 2O), grain yield and nitrogen in grain of primary crop, and had a control treatment were included in the analysis. Long-term studies were uncommon, with most data coming from studies lasting 2–3 years. The literature search resulted in 106 studies carried out at 372 sites and covering different countries, climatic zones and management. Our analysis demonstrates that cover crops significantly (p < 0.001) decreased N leaching and significantly (p < 0.001) increased SOC sequestration without having significant (p > 0.05) effects on direct N 2O emissions. Cover crops could mitigate the NGHGB by 2.06 ± 2.10 Mg CO 2-eq ha −1 year −1. One of the potential disadvantages of cover crops identified was the reduction in grain yield of the primary crop by ≈4%, compared to the control treatment. This drawback could be avoided by selecting mixed cover crops with a range of legumes and non-legumes, which increased the yield by ≈13%. These advantages of cover crops justify their widespread adoption. However, management practices in relation to cover crops will need to be adapted to specific soil, management and regional climatic conditions.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)2530-2543
    Number of pages14
    JournalGlobal Change Biology
    Issue number8
    Early online date7 Apr 2019
    Publication statusPrint publication - Aug 2019


    • C sequestration
    • N content
    • N in grain
    • N leaching
    • catch crop
    • cover crop
    • green manure
    • net greenhouse gas balance
    • nitrate
    • nitrous oxide emissions
    • soil organic carbon
    • yield


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