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Assessing the impacts of cover crops on maize and soybean yield in the U.S. Midwestern agroecosystems

Growing cover crops is one of the most promising conservation practices with multiple benefits. However, the impacts of cover crops on the productivity of the maize-soybean [Zea mays L. – Glycine max (L.) Merr.] rotation system in the U.S. Midwest still have large uncertainties based on results obtained from field experiments, specifically across different soil properties, climate conditions, and land management practices. Process-based models fully validated with data from field experiments across these diverse conditions provide an effective tool to quantify cover crop impacts on cash crop productivity and optimize the management of cover crops accordingly.

In this study, we aim to answer the following questions:

  1. What are the impacts of cover crops on cash crop yield in the U.S. Midwest agroecosystems?
  2. What are the mechanistic pathways of cover crop to affect cash crop yield (e.g. through influencing soil water, nitrogen and O2 dynamics)?
  3. What management practices can be used to mitigate the negative impacts on cash crop yield caused by cover crops? To address these questions, we calibrated and validated a sophisticated process-based agroecosystem model, ecosys, using field experimental data from 2013 to 2018 across Illinois, and then used ecosys to assess the impacts of winter cover crops on maize and soybean yield under different management practices. Our study revealed the following findings:
    1. planting non-legume cover crops can cause 3.9 ± 3% yield reduction for maize and no significant impacts on soybean yield, while planting legume cover crops has no significant impact on the yield of either maize or soybean;
    2. the maize yield reduction caused by planting cover crops can be mainly explained by nitrogen deficiency induced by increased immobilization, water competition in dry areas, cooler soil surface and oxygen competition;
    3. later termination of non-legume cover crops before maize can result in larger maize yield loss due to intensive competition for resources (e.g. water and nitrogen), and the impacts of non-legume cover crops on maize yield reduction can be minimized by optimizing cover crop termination time in the spring. Overall, in the U.S. Midwestern maize-soybean rotation system, we found that although non-legume cover crops cause yield reduction for maize through resource competition, this yield reduction can be minimized through management practices, such as controlling termination time of cover crop and proper fertilizer management.

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