Cover crop effects on soil moisture and water quality



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Kansas State University


Eutrophication of freshwater lakes and streams is linked to phosphorus (P) fertilizer loss from agriculture. Cover crops could help mitigate P loss but producers are concerned that they may use too much water. This study was conducted to better understand the effects cover crops have on soil moisture and P loss. Volumetric water content (θ) was measured at the Kansas Cover Crop Water Use research area at 10 depths throughout a 2.74 m soil profile in 5 cover crop treatments and compared to θ measured from a chemical fallow control. Total profile soil moisture in sorghum sudangrass (1.02 m) and forage soybean (1.03 m) did not significantly differ from chemical fallow (1.05 m) at the time of spring planting. However, water deficits were observed in double-crop soybean (1.01 m), crimson clover (0.99 m), and tillage radish (0.99 m). At the Kansas Agricultural Watersheds, runoff was collected and analyzed for total suspended solids, total P, and DRP from 6 cover crop/fertilizer management treatments over two years. In the first water year the cover crop reduced runoff, sediment, and total P loss by 16, 56, and 52% respectively. There was a significant cover by fertilizer interaction for DRP loss. When P fertilizer was broadcasted in the fall with a cover crop, DRP loss was reduced by 60% but was unaffected in the other two P fertilizer treatments. Results were different in the second water year. The cover crop reduced sediment loss (71% reduction), as was seen in year one, but neither the cover crop nor the fertilizer management had a significant effect on runoff volume or total P loss overall. Contrary to the 2014-2015 results, cover crop increased DRP load by 48% in 2015-2016. DRP load was 2 times greater in the fall broadcast treatment than it was in the spring injected treatment but there was not a significant fertilizer by cover crop interaction. In order to determine the long term effects of cover crops and P fertilizer management P loss parameters should be tracked for several more years.



Water quality, Cover crop, Soil moisture, Phosphorus, Runoff

Graduation Month



Master of Science


Department of Agronomy

Major Professor

Nathan O. Nelson