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Soil water improvements with the long-term use of a winter rye cover crop

Andrea D. Basche, Thomas C. Kaspar, Sotirios V. Archontoulis, Dan B. Jaynes, Thomas J. Sauer, Timothy B. Parkin, Fernando E. Miguez
Agricultural water management 2016 v.172 no. pp. 40-50
Glycine max, Secale cereale, Zea mays, biomass, cash crops, climate, corn, cover crops, crop rotation, crop yield, field capacity, growing season, leaf area, nitrogen, plant available water, rain, risk reduction, rye, soil management, soil water content, soil water storage, soybeans, water content, water stress, winter, Iowa
The Midwestern United States, a region that produces one-third of maize and one-quarter of soybean grain globally, is projected to experience increasing rainfall variability. One approach to mitigate climate impacts is to utilize crop and soil management practices that enhance soil water storage and reduce the risks of flooding as well as drought-induced crop water stress. While some research indicates that a winter cover crop in maize-soybean rotations increases soil water availability, producers continue to be concerned that water use by cover crops will reduce water for a following cash crop. We analyzed continuous in-field soil water measurements from 2008 to 2014 at a Central Iowa research site that has included a winter rye cover crop in a maize-soybean rotation for thirteen years. This period of study included years in the top third of the wettest on record (2008, 2010, 2014) as well as drier years in the bottom third (2012, 2013). We found the cover crop treatment to have significantly higher soil water storage at the 0–30cm depth from 2012 to 2014 when compared to the no cover crop treatment and in most years greater soil water content on individual days analyzed during the cash crop growing season. We further found that the cover crop significantly increased the field capacity water content by 10–11% and plant available water by 21–22%. Finally, in 2013 and 2014, we measured maize and soybean biomass every 2–3 weeks and did not see treatment differences in crop growth, leaf area or nitrogen uptake. Final crop yields were not statistically different between the cover and no cover crop treatment in any of the seven years of this analysis. This research indicates that the long-term use of a winter rye cover crop can improve soil water dynamics without sacrificing cash crop growth in maize-soybean crop rotations in the Midwestern United States.