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Cover crop effects on soil carbon and nitrogen under bioenergy sorghum crops

U. M. Sainju, H. P. Singh, B. P. Singh
Journal of soil and water conservation 2015 v.70 no.6 pp. 410-417
Secale cereale, Sorghum bicolor subsp. bicolor, Vicia villosa, aboveground biomass, ammonium nitrogen, bioenergy, climatic factors, cover crops, energy crops, environmental quality, forage, forage crops, legumes, nitrate nitrogen, nitrogen, rye, soil, soil organic carbon, sweet sorghum, Southeastern United States
Cover crops can increase soil C and N storage and reduce the potential for N leaching under agronomic crops, but information on their benefits under bioenergy crops is scanty due to the removal of aboveground biomass. The objective of the study was to evaluate the effect of cover crops on soil organic C (SOC), total N (STN), NH4-N, and NO3-N contents at the 0- to 30-cm (0- to 12-in) depth under bioenergy sorghum (Sorghum bicolor [L.] Moench) crops from 2010 to 2013 in the southeastern United States. Treatments were two sorghum species {forage sorghum (Sorghum vulgare Pers.) and sweet sorghum (Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench)} and four cover crops {legume (hairy vetch [Vicia villosa Roth]), nonlegume (rye [Secaele cereale L.]), biculture of legume and nonlegume (hairy vetch/rye), and no cover crop (control)} laid out in a split-plot arrangement in randomized complete block with three replications. At 15 to 30 cm (6 to 12 in), SOC was greater with hairy vetch/rye than the control under forage sorghum. At 0 to 5 and 5 to 15 cm (0 to 2 and 2 to 6 in), STN was greater with hairy vetch and hairy vetch/rye than rye under forage sorghum and greater with hairy vetch/rye than the control under sweet sorghum. At 5 to 15 cm (2 to 6 in), NO3-N was greater with hairy vetch/rye than rye in 2011, but was greater with rye and hairy vetch than hairy vetch/rye in 2012. At all depths, NH4-N was greater under forage than sweet sorghum in 2012. Regardless of treatments, SOC and STN increased, but NH4-N and NO3-N varied from 2010 to 2013. Although soil available N varied with cover crops, sorghum types, and climatic conditions from year to year, hairy vetch/rye can conserve and/or increase soil C and N levels compared with other cover crops under bioenergy sorghum in the southeastern United States. The results can be used to claim C credit, increase N cycling, and improve soil and environmental quality in the regions with similar soil and climatic conditions.