Legume-based catch crops (LBCCs) may act as an important source of nitrogen (N) in organic crop rotations because of biological N fixation. However, the potential risk of high nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions needs to be taken into account when including LBCCs in crop rotations. Here, we report the results from a one-year field experiment, which investigated N availability and N2O emissions as affected by three LBCCs, i.e., red clover (CL), red clover–ryegrass mixture (GC) and winter vetch (WV), two non-LBCCs, i.e., perennial ryegrass (GR) and fodder radish (FR), and a control (CO) without catch crops. The effect of two catch crop management strategies was also tested: autumn harvest of the catch crop versus incorporation of whole-crop residues by spring ploughing. LBCCs accumulated 59–67 kg N ha−1 in their tops, significantly more than those of the non-LBCC, 32–40 kg N ha−1. Macro-roots accounted for >33% of total N in the catch crops. In accordance with this, LBCCs enhanced the performance of the succeeding unfertilised spring barley, thus obtaining a grain yield of 3.3–4.5 Mg ha−1 compared to 2.6–3.3 Mg ha−1 grain yield from non-LBCC and the fallow control treatments. Autumn harvest of catch crops, especially LBCCs, tended to reduce crop yield. The annual N2O emissions were comparable across treatments except for fodder radish, which had the highest N2O emission, and also the highest average yield-scaled N2O emission, at 499 g N2O-N Mg−1 grain. Although the sampling strategy employed in this study introduces uncertainty about the spatial and temporal variability, differences in seasonal emission patterns among catch crops were captured and harvest of catch crops in late autumn induced significantly higher emissions during winter, but lower emissions after residue incorporation in spring. In comparison with non-LBCC, LBCCs have the potential to partly replace the effect of manure application in organic cropping systems with greater crop production and less environmental footprint with respect to N2O emissions. However, harvest of the catch crops may reduce crop yield unless the harvested N is recycled as fertiliser to the crops in the rotation.
Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 2015, Vol 199, p. 382-393