In the Midwestern United States, cover crops are being promoted as a best management practice for managing nutrient and sediment losses from agricultural fields through surface and subsurface water movement. To date, the water quality benefits of cover crops have been inferred primarily
[...] Read more.
In the Midwestern United States, cover crops are being promoted as a best management practice for managing nutrient and sediment losses from agricultural fields through surface and subsurface water movement. To date, the water quality benefits of cover crops have been inferred primarily from plot scale studies. This project is one of the first to analyze the impacts of cover crops on stream water quality at the watershed scale. The objective of this research was to evaluate nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment loss in stream water from a no-till corn-soybean rotation planted with winter cover crops cereal rye (Secale cereale
) and hairy vetch (Vicia villosa
) in non-tile drained paired watersheds in Illinois, USA. The paired watersheds are under mixed land use (agriculture, forest, and pasture). The control watershed had 27 ha of row-crop agriculture, and the treatment watershed had 42 ha of row crop agriculture with cover crop treatment (CC-treatment). During a 4-year calibration period, 42 storm events were collected and Event Mean Concentrations (EMCs) for each storm event were calculated for total suspended solids (TSS), nitrate-N (NO3
-N), ammonia-N (NH4
-N), dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP), and total discharge. Predictive regression equations developed from the calibration period were used for calculating TSS, NO3
-N, and DRP losses of surface runoff for the CC-treatment watershed. The treatment period consisted of total 18 storm events, seven of which were collected during the cereal rye, eight in the hairy vetch cover crop season and three during cash crop season. Cover crops reduced TSS and discharge by 33% and 34%, respectively in the CC-treatment watershed during the treatment period. However, surprisingly, EMCs for NO3
-N, and DRP did not decrease. Stream discharge from the paired-watersheds will continue to be monitored to determine if the current water quality results hold or new patterns emerge.