Excess phosphorus (P) from agriculture is a leading cause of harmful and nuisance algal blooms in many freshwater ecosystems. Throughout much of the midwestern United States, extensive networks of subsurface tile drains remove excess water from fields and allow for productive agriculture. This enhanced drainage also facilitates the transport of P, particularly soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP), to adjacent streams and ditches, with harmful consequences. Thus, reducing SRP loss from tile-drained cropland is a major focus of regional and national efforts to curb eutrophication and algal blooms. The planting of cover crops after crop harvest is a conservation practice that has the potential to increase retention of fertilizer nutrients in watersheds by extending the growing season and limiting bare ground in the fallow season; however, the effect of cover crops on SRP loss is inconsistent at the field-scale and unknown at the watershed-scale. In this study, we conducted a large-scale manipulation of land cover in a small, agricultural watershed by planting cover crops on >60% of croppable acres for six years and examining changes in SRP loss through tile drains and at the watershed outlet. We found reduced median SRP loss from tiles with cover crops compared to those without cover crops, particularly during periods of critical export from January to June. Variation in tile discharge influenced SRP loss, but relationships were generally weaker in tiles with cover crops (i.e., decoupled) compared to tiles without cover crops. At the watershed outlet, SRP yield was highly variable over all seasons and years, which complicated efforts to detect a significant effect of changing land cover on SRP export to downstream systems. Yet, watershed-scale planting of cover crops slowed cumulative SRP losses and reduced SRP export during extreme events. Overall, this study demonstrates the potential for cover crops to alter patterns of SRP loss at both the field- and watershed-scale.
- Cover crops
- P retention
- Soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP)
- Vegetative cover