EGU General Assembly 2023
© Author(s) 2023. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Integrating cover crops with no-tillage benefits crop yields, increases soil carbon storage while reducing nitrogen leaching in global croplands

Jianyong Ma1, Peter Anthoni1, Stefan Olin2, Sam Rabin3, Anita Bayer4, and Almut Arneth1
Jianyong Ma et al.
  • 1Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research, Atmospheric Environmental Research, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany
  • 2Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystems Science, Lund University, Sweden
  • 3Department of Environmental Sciences, Rutgers University, USA
  • 4OHB-System AG, Germany

Increasing crop productivity while keeping detrimental side-effects on the environment low is a major challenge for global agriculture. Cover crops (CCs), mostly grown during the fallow period and incorporated in soils, are expected to improve soil fertility and crop yields while reducing chemical fertilizer use, with climate change mitigation co-benefits. However, quantifying these ecosystem services across global agricultural lands remains uncertain. In this study we investigate how the use of herbaceous CCs with and without biological nitrogen (N) fixation affects yields and cropland carbon and nitrogen balances using the dynamic global vegetation model LPJ-GUESS. Model performance is evaluated against observations from field trials worldwide as well as other published model-based estimates. LPJ-GUESS generally captures the observed enhanced soil carbon, reduced N leaching, and yield changes caused by CCs. We found that the combination of N-fixing CCs with no-tillage management could potentially increase soil carbon storage by 7% (+0.32 Pg C yr-1 in global croplands) while reducing N leaching by 41% (-7.3 Tg N yr-1) compared with bare fallows after 36 years of simulation. This integrated practice is accompanied by a 2% increase in total crop production (+37 million tonnes yr-1 including wheat, maize, rice, and soybean) in the last decade of the simulation. Legume cover cropping is found to contribute more to increasing the subsequent crop yields than non-legumes. The effects of CCs on crop productivity are highly dependent on the main food crop types, chemical fertilizer use, and management duration, with smallest yield changes found in soybean systems and highly fertilized agricultural soils. Our results demonstrate the possibility of conservation agriculture when targeting long-term environmental sustainability without compromising crop production in global croplands.

How to cite: Ma, J., Anthoni, P., Olin, S., Rabin, S., Bayer, A., and Arneth, A.: Integrating cover crops with no-tillage benefits crop yields, increases soil carbon storage while reducing nitrogen leaching in global croplands, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-3159,, 2023.