A critical review of the impacts of cover crops on nitrogen leaching, net greenhouse gas balance and crop productivity

Mohamed Abdalla* (Corresponding Author), Astley Hastings, Kun Cheng, Qian Yue, Dave Chadwick, Mikk Espenberg, Jaak Truu, Robert M. Rees, Pete Smith

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalLiterature reviewpeer-review

286 Citations (Scopus)
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Cover crops play an increasingly important role in improving soil quality, reducing agricultural inputs and improving environmental sustainability. The main objectives of this critical global review and systematic analysis were to assess cover crop practices in the context of their impacts on nitrogen leaching, net greenhouse gas balances (NGHGB) and crop productivity. Only studies that investigated the impacts of cover crops and measured one or a combination of: nitrogen leaching, soil organic carbon (SOC), nitrous oxide (N2O), grain yield and nitrogen in grain of primary crop, and had a control treatment were included in the analysis. Long-term studies were uncommon, with most data coming from studies lasting 2-3 years. The literature search resulted in 106 studies carried out at 372 sites and covering different countries, climatic zones and management. Our analysis demonstrates that cover crops significantly (p<0.001) decreased N leaching and significantly (p<0.001) increased SOC sequestration without having significant (p>0.05) effects on direct N2O emissions. Cover crops could mitigate the NGHGB by 2.06 ±2.10 Mg CO2-eq ha-1 y-1. One of the potential disadvantages of cover crops identified was the reduction in grain yield of the primary crop by ≈4%, compared to the control treatment. This drawback could be avoided by selecting mixed cover crops with a range of legumes and non-legumes, which increased the yield by ≈13%. These advantages of cover crops justify their widespread adoption. However, management practices in relation to cover crops will need to be adapted to specific soil, management and regional climatic conditions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2530-2543
Number of pages14
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number8
Early online date13 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2019

Bibliographical note

This work contributes to the UK-China Virtual Joint Centre N-Circle (grant number
BB/N013484/1), SuperG (funded under EU Horizon 2020 programme) and ADVENT (grant number NE/M019691/1). DRC was supported by the UK-China Virtual joint Centre for Agricultural Nitrogen (CINAg, BB/N013468/1) and the UK-Brazil Virtual Joint Centre to deliver enhanced N-use efficiency via an integrated soil-plant systems approach (NUCLEUS), which are jointly supported by Newton fund via UK BBSRC and NERC. Jaak Truu received financing from Estonian Research Council (grant PRG548).


  • Cover crop
  • Catch crop
  • N leaching
  • Soil organic carbon
  • N in grain
  • Nitrous oxide emissions
  • net greenhouse gas balance
  • green manure
  • yield
  • N content
  • nitrate
  • C sequestration
  • soil organic carbon
  • cover crop
  • nitrous oxide emissions
  • catch crop


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