Fall Cover Crops for Reducing Nitrate Leaching in Cool Season Vegetable Production in the Salinas Valley

in HortScience

Lettuce growers in the Salinas Valley are often not able to rotate to other crops due to economic pressure, such as high land rent. Winter-grown cover crops (October to March) provide a short-term rotation from lettuce and have been shown to reduce nitrate leaching by 75%. However, the use of winter-grown cover crops is low due to the extended time these cover crops tie up the ground. As a result, growers are interested in the potential of fall-grown cover crops (September to October) to reduce nitrate leaching through the winter. Fall-grown cover crops are incorporated into the soil prior to the onset of winter rains and leave the soil bare over the winter; however, during fall growth, the cover crop has the potential to capture excess nitrate that may leach during the fallow period, but how much has not been previously measured. A long-term trial was established in Fall 2003 using treatments of Indian mustard (B. juncea) `ISCI 61', White mustard (S. alba) `Ida Gold', Cereal rye (Secale cereale) `Merced', and a no cover crop control. All cover crops contained ≈224 kg·ha-1 N upon incorporation. Anion resin bags were installed 90 cm deep in the soil following incorporation to trap leaching nitrate; they were left in place until planting of the lettuce the following spring. First-year results indicated that the mustard cover crops and `Merced' rye all reduced nitrate leaching to the 90-cm depth by 67% to 82% over the bare fallow treatment. These results indicate that fall-grown cover crops have the potential to reduce nitrate leaching in lettuce production systems in the Salinas Valley.

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