Cover crops in the upper midwestern United States: Potential adoption and reduction of nitrate leaching in the mississippi river basin

Eileen J. Kladivko, Tom C. Kaspar, Dan B. Jaynes, Rob W. Malone, Jeremy Singer, Xenia K. Morin, Timothy Searchinger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

109 Scopus citations


Nitrate (NO3) losses from agricultural lands in the Midwest flow into the Mississippi River Basin (MRB) and contribute significantly to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. Previous work has shown that cover crops can reduce loadings, but adoption rates are low, and the potential impact if cover crops were widely adopted is currently unknown. This paper provides an analysis of potential cover crop adoption and relative benefits to water quality across the five-state region of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota in the upper midwestern MRB. Two agricultural counties were selected in each of the five states, and the potential for fall-planted cover crop adoption was estimated based on cash crop rotation and tillage systems. In these 10 counties, an estimated 34% to 81% of the agricultural land could have cover crops integrated into their corn (Zea mays L.) and soybean (Glycine max L.) cropping systems. These adoption rates would in some cases require shifts of current tillage practices from fall to spring, but could be even higher with increased adoption of no-till and mulch-till. Nitrate reduction simulated with the Root Zone Water Quality Model for the tile drained portion of the corn-soybean and continuous corn cropping systems in the five-state area, under the assumed management systems and uniform soil properties, showed that cover crops have the potential to reduce NO3 loadings to the Mississippi River by approximately 20%. These predictions suggest that cover crop adoption would have a beneficial impact on water quality in the MRB and would contribute greatly towards meeting the national goal of significant reduction in NO3-nitrogen (N) load entering the Gulf.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)279-291
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Soils and Water Conservation
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Soil Science
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


  • Adoption
  • Cover crops
  • Hypoxia
  • Mississippi River
  • Nitrate leaching
  • Water quality


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