Legume Cover Crop Contributions to Ecological Nutrient Management in Upper Midwest Vegetable Systems

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Cover cropping, especially with legumes, is a critical approach to ecological soil nutrient management as a means to meet Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2, addressing food security issues via sustainable agriculture approaches. However, cover cropping in some of the most intensified food production regions of the northern U.S. is challenged by short growing seasons and harsh winters with variable temperatures and increasingly erratic snowfall. In this study, we explore the potential of winter annual legume cover crops to augment soil organic carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) stocks within a horticultural cropping system under climate conditions that allow only modest cover crop biomass production. We compared hairy vetch, cereal rye, red clover, and a hairy vetch/rye biculture in a randomized complete block design at two sites (North Central and Southwest Research and Outreach Centers in Minnesota) over 2 years. Cover crops were established in fall and terminated in spring prior to sweet corn planting, and soils sampled both at pre-cover crop termination and 2 weeks post-termination. We determined several indicators of C and N dynamics, including microbial biomass C (MBC), permanganate-oxidizable C (POXC), particulate organic matter C and N (POMC and POMN, respectively), extractable soil N (EXTN), and potentially mineralizable N (PMN). Out of all treatments evaluated, vetch production increased soil EXTN the greatest after 2 weeks, contributing two to 11 times more EXTN to soils compared to non-vetch treatments, meeting N requirements for sweet corn in three out of four site-years. Overall, time of sampling, either pre-or post-termination, consistently impacted soil measurements, with p < 0.05 in 20 out of 24 soil parameter × site-year combinations. Study results suggest that cover crops planted in colder northern climates during winter fallow periods can supply valuable N following spring termination, but termination effects on labile C and N pools are mixed. Our findings advance understanding of how cover cropping can support SDG 2 outcomes by assessing cover crop legume systems under biophysical conditions that challenge cover crop integration in agroecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number712152
JournalFrontiers in Sustainable Food Systems
StatePublished - Apr 15 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We gratefully acknowledge the support of the North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program of USDA project number LNC14-364 and the University of Minnesota's Forever Green Initiative for funding and the reviewers that graciously volunteered their time to provide this manuscript with meaningful feedback.

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2022 Perrone, Grossman, Liebman, Wells, Sooksa-nguan and Jordan.


  • cover crops
  • legumes
  • nutrient cycling
  • organic cropping systems
  • soil organic matter


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