Immobilizing Nitrogen through the Use of Cover Crops Back »

Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS South Dakota.

It has been well-documented that annual precipitation across parts of South Dakota and the Midwest has increased over time (Figure 1). It does not come as a complete surprise then that we have seen an increase in the installation of subsurface tile drainage systems in eastern South Dakota (Figure 2). Tile drainage can reduce sediment erosion and particulate-bound phosphorus losses on agricultural land with poor natural drainage. Studies have also shown, however; that tile drainage may increase exports of soluble nutrients to surface waters such as nitrate-nitrogen and dissolved phosphorus. Nitrate lost from agricultural soils is costly to producers, poses environmental concerns when entering rivers and lakes, and are a health risk when reaching wells and aquifers used for drinking water (Drury et al. 2014). Balancing the amount of N needed for optimum plant growth while minimizing nitrate-nitrogen (NO3-N) transported to ground and surface waters remains a major challenge for those attempting to understand and improve agricultural nutrient use efficiency (Dinnes et al. 2002).

Figure 1. Annual precipitation trends in southeast South Dakota (1900 - 2015).
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Figure 2.
Total Number of Drainage Permits Issued in Minnehaha County (2007 - 2014). 2015 includes approved Drainage Permits through April 15, 2015. Decline after 2012 thought to be correlated with a drop in crop yield, prices, and/or fewer remaining acres to be drained.
Minnehaha County Planning Department.

Monitoring Nitrate Losses

With subsurface tile drainage comes the opportunity to monitor nitrate losses in drainage water under different cropping scenarios and management systems. In one study, nitrate losses in subsurface drainage water from continuous corn and corn-soybean systems were about 37X and 35X higher, respectively, than from the alfalfa and CRP systems. This was due primarily to greater season-long evapotranspiration resulting in less drainage and greater uptake and/or immobilization of N by perennial crops (Randall et al. 1997). Evapotranspiration (ET) is a term used to describe the transport of water into the atmosphere from soil (soil evaporation), and vegetation (transpiration). In other words, the longer you continue to grow something, the less likely it is that nitrogen will be lost from the soil profile.

Cover Crops & Reducing Nitrate Losses

In principle, the incorporation of cover crops into a rotation can be thought of as a way to mimic those perennial systems (prairie) where nitrogen is rarely lost. Unless the ground is frozen on rangeland, something is always going to be growing. Cover crops extend the vegetative growing season on your fields and reduce nitrate losses, compared to no-cover crop, by converting inorganic N compounds into an organic form. As cover crop residue decomposes the N is released to the next year’s crop. Cover crops also have the potential to increase soil organic matter, and reduce soil erosion and fertilizer inputs.

While seed and planting costs (and spraying if the species overwinters) need to be weighed against any potential agronomic benefits they may provide, cover crops can be an effective option to improve water quality in subsurface tile drainage systems.


  • Dinnes, D. L., D. L. Karlen, D. B. Jaynes, T. C. Kaspar, J. L. Hatfield, T. S. Colvin, and C. A. Cambardella. 2002. Nitrogen Management Strategies to Reduce Nitrate Leaching in Tile-Drained Midwestern Soils. Agronomy Journal 94:153-171.
  • Drury, C. F., C. S. Tan, T. W. Welacky, W. D. Reynolds, T. Q. Zhang, T. O. Oloya, N. B. McLaughlin, and J. D. Gaynor. 2014. Reducing Nitrate Loss in Tile Drainage Water with Cover Crops and Water-Table Management Systems. Journal of Environmental Quality 43:587-598.
  • Randall, G. W., D. R. Huggins, M. P. Russelle, D. J. Fuchs, W. W. Nelson, and J. L. Anderson. 1997. Nitrate Losses through Subsurface Tile Drainage in Conservation Reserve Program, Alfalfa, and Row Crop Systems. Journal of Environmental Quality 26:1240-1247.
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