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Catch crops may strongly reduce nitrate leaching during autumn and winter in temperate climates. Authorities therefore aim to stimulate farmers to place catch crops in their rotations by allowing them to apply more nitrogen (N) to their fields. Furthermore, some regulations make it possible to fertilize catch crops after harvest of specific crops such as winter cereals, even if catch crops are sown during late summer. Some farmers claim that this practice is essential for a good development of the catch crop. However, it is not sure whether this summer fertilization to catch crops could result in any additional nitrate leaching, compared to nitrate leaching under non-fertilized catch crops. We therefore designed field experiments including four different catch crop species, each of them sown after harvest of winter cereals at two different dates, and each of them receiving two different doses of pig slurry or receiving no fertilizer at all. Experiments were installed on sites with different soil textures in northern Belgium. Based on the results of soil mineral N and N uptake, we assessed the risk of additional nitrate leaching caused by fertilization of catch crops. We found that the apparent uptake of N released from pig slurry was rather limited but sufficient to avoid additional nitrate leaching on sandy soils, mainly due to supplementary immobilization of the applied N occurring during mineralization of the cereal crop residues. It is critical to mention the limiting conditions that we found to be adequate from our results: catch crops were to be sown in good circumstances before September and could only receive the smallest dose of pig slurry, which was approximately 60 kg N ha−1. On silty soils, however, we found even under these conditions a few indications of small amounts of additional nitrate leaching. As fertilization did not seem mandatory to develop an effectively functioning catch crop and as there was no indication of reduced nitrate losses due to this practice, we would rather discourage fertilization of catch crops to exclude any environ-mental risk. However, fertilization significantly increased the catch crop yield, so the decision to fertilize or not may also be seen as a trade-off between minor amounts of additional nitrate leaching and enhanced biomass-related effects, such as the additional input of organic carbon into the soil.
|Tijdschrift||Agriculture Ecosystems & Environment|
|Status||Gepubliceerd - 25-aug-2020|
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