Cover crops hold potential to improve soil quality, to recover residual fertilizer N in the soil after a summer crop that otherwise might leach to the groundwater, and to be a source of N for subsequently planted vegetable crops. The objective of this 5-year study was to determine the N uptake by winter cover crops and its effect on summer vegetable productivity. Winter cover crops [red clover (Trifolium pratense L.), cereal rye (Secale cereale L. var. Wheeler), a cereal rye/Austrian winter pea (Pisum sativum L.) mix, or a winter fallow control] were in a rotation with alternate years of sweet corn (Zea mays L. cv. Jubilee) and broccoli (Brassica oleracea L. Botrytis Group cv. Gem). The subplots were N rate (zero, intermediate, and as recommended for vegetable crop). Summer relay plantings of red clover or cereal rye were also used to gain early establishment of the cover crop. Cereal rye cover crops recovered residual fertilizer N at an average of 40 kg·ha-1 following the recommended N rates, but after 5 years of cropping, there was no evidence that the N conserved by the cereal rye cover crop would permit a reduction in inorganic N inputs to maintain yields. Intermediate rates of N applied to summer crops in combination with winter cover crops containing legumes produced vegetable yields similar to those with recommended rates of N in combination with winter fallow or cereal rye cover crops. There was a consistent trend (P < 0.12) for cereal rye cover crops to cause a small decrease in broccoli yields as compared to winter fallow.
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