Evaluating Different Catch Crop Strategies for Closing the Nitrogen Cycle in Cropping Systems—Field Experiments and Modelling

For arable stockless farming systems, the integration of catch crops (CC) during the fallow period might be a key for closing the nitrogen (N) cycle, reducing N leaching and increasing the transfer of N to the subsequent crop. However, despite considerable research efforts, the fate of N in such integrated systems remains unclear. To address this, a two-year field experiment was carried out in northern Germany with different CC, including frost-tolerant and frost-killed CC. The experiment started following a two-year ryegrass/red clover ley, which was subsequently sown with a cereal (CE) or a grain legume (field pea, PE). This provided two contrasting systems with high residual N in autumn. The results showed high N uptake of the CC, ranging from 84 to 136 kg N ha−1 with PE as the pre-crop, and from 33 to 110 kg N ha−1 with CE. All CC reduced N leaching compared with the control, a bare fallow over autumn/winter. Of the various CC, the frost-killed CC showed higher leaching compared with the other CCs, indicating mineralisation of the CC residue in the later autumn/winter period. The process based APSIM (Agricultural Production SIMulator) model was used to simulate N cycling for a cereal grain legume rotation, including a frost-killed and a frost resistant CC. While the model simulated the biomass and the N uptake by the crops, as well as the reduction of N leaching with the use of CC well, it under-estimated N leaching from the frost-killed CC. The study showed that all CC were affective at reducing N leaching, but winter hard catch crops should be preferred, as there is a risk of increased leaching following the mineralisation of residues from frost-killed CC


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