Fallow replacement and nitrogen management for reducing nitrate leaching in a semi-arid region


Nitrate (NO3 −) leaching into groundwater is a growing global concern for health, environmental, and economic reasons, yet little is known about the effects of agricultural management practices on the magnitude of leaching, especially in dryland semiarid regions. Groundwater nitrate–nitrogen (nitrate–N) concentrations above the drinking water standard of 10 mg L−1 are common in the Judith River Watershed (JRW) of semiarid central Montana. A 2-year study conducted on commercial farms in the JRW compared nitrate leaching rates across three alternative management practices (AMP: pea, controlled release urea, split application of N) and three grower standard practices (GSP: summer fallow, conventional urea, single application of urea). Crop biomass and soil were collected at ten sampling locations on each side of a management interface separating each AMP from its corresponding GSP. A nitrogen (N) mass balance approach was used to estimate the amount of nitrate leached annually. In 2013, less nitrate leached the year after the pea AMP (18 ± 2.5 kg N ha−1) than the year after the fallow GSP (54 ± 3.6 kg N ha−1), whereas the two AMP fertilizer treatments had no effect on nitrate leaching compared to GSPs. In 2014, leaching rates did not differ between each AMP and its corresponding GSP. The results suggest that replacing fallow with pea has the greatest potential to reduce nitrate leaching. Future leaching research should likely focus on practices that decrease deep percolation, such as fallow replacement with annual or perennial crops, more than on N fertilizer practices.




John, A. A., Jones, C. A., Ewing, S. A., Sigler, W. A., Bekkerman, A., & Miller, P. R. (2017). Fallow replacement and alternative nitrogen management for reducing nitrate leaching in a semiarid region. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems, 108(3), 279–296. doi:10.1007/s10705-017-9855-9
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