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Effect of winter catch crops on nitrogen surplus in intensive vegetable crop rotations.

The nitrogen (N) use efficiency of field vegetable production systems needs to be increased in order to, reduce the detrimental effects of N losses on other ecosystems, save on production costs, and meet the limits set by the German government concerning N balance surpluses. Winter catch crops (CCs) have been shown to be a useful tool for reducing N losses in many agricultural production systems. This study was designed to test the effects of different CCs: rye (Secale cereale L.), fodder radish (Raphanus sativus L. var. oleiformis Pers.), bunch onion (Allium cepa L.), and sudangrass (Sorghum sudanense Stapf), planted at different sowing dates (early, late), on the N balance of 2-year vegetable crop rotation systems. The crop rotations started with a cauliflower (Brassica oleracea L. var. botrytis L.) crop, which was fertilized with N in a conventional manner. The experiments took place at three different sites in Germany. Results revealed that the average N balance surplus, when taking into consideration, fertilization, soil mineral N, and aboveground plant biomass N, was 217 kg N ha?1 in the control treatments without a CC. This high value was mainly a consequence of large quantities of crop N and soil mineral N remaining after the harvest of the cauliflower. In spite of these high N surpluses, the application of CC only reduced the N balance surplus, on average across all sites and experiments, by 13 kg N ha?1, when compared to the control treatments. The type of CC and the sowing date had only minor effects on the N balance. The findings of this study suggest that for many sites the application of CCs does not solve the problem of high N balance surpluses in intensive field vegetable production systems.

Nett, L.; Feller, C.; George, E.; Fink, M. 2011. Effect of winter catch crops on nitrogen surplus in intensive vegetable crop rotations. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems 91 (3), 327-337.