Cropping system design can improve nitrogen use efficiency in intensively managed agriculture

Chong Zhang, RM Rees, Xiaotang Ju*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)
37 Downloads (Pure)


New agronomic and management approaches are urgently required to meet the challenges of improving resource use efficiency and crop yields in intensive agricultural systems. Here we report the fertilizer N use efficiency (FNUE), fate of fertilizer N and N budgets in newly designed cropping systems as compared with conventional winter wheat-summer maize double cropping (Con. W/M) in the North China Plain. A 15N labelling approach was used to quantify FNUE by these new cropping systems which included optimized winter wheat-summer maize (Opt. W/M) with two harvests in one year; winter wheat/summer maize-spring maize (W/M-M) and winter wheat/summer soybean-spring maize (W/S-M) with three harvests in two years, and spring maize (M) with one harvest in one year. The results showed that only 18–20% of fertilizer N was recovered by crops in Con. W/M. Although Opt. W/M significantly increased FNUE to 33%–35% with increased crop yields, it consumed as much groundwater as Con. W/M. The W/M-M, W/S-M and M significantly increased FNUE to 27%–44% and reduced groundwater use and fertilizer N losses when compared to Con. W/M. The W/M-M achieved a comparable grain yield, but W/S-M and M had significantly lower grain yields when compared to Con. W/M. However, grain N harvest in W/S-M was comparable with Con. W/M due to higher grain N content in soybean. Post-anthesis fertilizer N uptake provided little contribution to total N uptake, and accounted for 5%, 12%, 7% and 2% of the average N uptake for winter wheat, spring maize, summer maize and summer soybean, respectively. When taking the second crop into account, Con. W/M recovered 27% of fertilizer N, while it increased to 36%–50% under the new cropping systems. We conclude that W/M-M and W/S-M will deliver significant improvements in the environmental footprints and sustainability of intensively managed cropping systems in the North China Plain.

Original languageEnglish
Article number116967
JournalEnvironmental Pollution
Early online date20 Mar 2021
Publication statusPrint publication - 1 Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2021 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


  • Cropping system
  • Nitrogen use efficiency
  • Intensive agricultural system
  • 15N tracing approach
  • Fate of fertilizer N
  • Intensive agriculture
  • Groundwater use efficiency
  • N labelling
  • Cropping system design
  • Fertilizer nitrogen use efficiency (FNUE)
  • Zea mays
  • Nitrogen
  • Fertilizers
  • China
  • Soil
  • Agriculture
  • Crops, Agricultural


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