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Innovative cropping systems to reduce N inputs and maintain wheat yields by inserting grain legumes and cover crops in southwestern France

Plaza-Bonilla, Daniel, Nolot, Jean-Marie, Raffaillac, Didier, Justes, Eric
European journal of agronomy 2017 v.82 pp. 331-341
aboveground biomass, agroecosystems, biomass production, carbon, cover crops, crop rotation, durum wheat, environmental degradation, fallow, fertilizer application, grain protein, grain quality, grain yield, harvest index, nitrogen, nitrogen content, nitrogen fertilizers, nutrient use efficiency, peas, water use efficiency, France
The reduction in crop diversity and specialization of cereal-based cropping systems have led to high dependence on synthetic nitrogen (N) fertilizer in many areas of the globe. This has exacerbated environmental degradation due to the uncoupling of carbon (C) and N cycles in agroecosystems. In this experiment, we assessed impacts of introducing grain legumes and cover crops to innovative cropping systems to reduce N fertilizer application while maintaining wheat yields and grain quality. Six cropping systems resulting from the combination of three 3-year rotations with 0, 1 and 2 grain legumes (GL0, GL1 and GL2, respectively) with (CC) or without (BF, bare fallow) cover crops were compared during six cropping seasons. Durum wheat was included as a common high-value cash crop in all the cropping systems to evaluate the carryover effects of rotation. For each cropping system, the water use efficiency for producing C in aerial biomass and yield were quantified at the crop and rotation scales. Several diagnostic indicators were analyzed for durum wheat, such as (i) grain yield and 1000-grain weight; (ii) aboveground biomass, grain N content and grain protein concentration; (iii) water- and N-use efficiencies for yield; and (iv) N harvest index. Compared to the GL0-BF cropping system, which is most similar to that traditionally used in southwestern France, N fertilizer application decreased by 58%, 49%, 61% and 56% for the GL1-BF, GL1-CC, GL2-BF and GL2-CC cropping systems, respectively. However, the cropping systems without grain legumes (GL0-BF and GL0-CC) had the highest water use efficiency for producing C in aerial biomass and yield. The insertion of cover crops in the cropping systems did not change wheat grain yield, N uptake, or grain protein concentration compared to those of without cover crops, demonstrating a satisfactory adaptation of the entire cropping system to the use of cover crops. Winter pea as a preceding crop for durum wheat increased wheat grain production by 8% (383kgha−1) compared to that with sunflower−the traditional preceding crop−with a mean reduction in fertilizer application of 40–49kgNha−1 during the six-year experiment. No differences in protein concentration of wheat grain were observed among preceding crops. Our experiment demonstrates that under temperate submediterranean conditions, properly designed cropping systems that simultaneously insert grain legumes and cover crops reduce N requirements and show similar wheat yield and grain quality attributes as those that are cereal-based.