Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

Scientific Publications

Nitrate leaching losses and the fate of 15N fertilizer in perennial intermediate wheatgrass and annual wheat — A field study

Author: Alexandra Huddell, Maria Ernfors, Timothy Crews, Giulia Vico & Duncan N.L. Menge

Publication: Science of the Total Environment

Recent research in ecology illustrates the advantage that perennial grains like Kernza (intermediate wheatgrass) possess in reducing nitrate leaching when compared to popular annual grain crops like wheat, as the large root systems of perennial grains more efficiently retain nitrogen and therefore release less to their surrounding environment where it can both pollute water bodies and be converted into a greenhouse gas.


Perennial grains, such as the intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) (IWG), may reduce negative environmental effects compared to annual grain crops. Their permanent, and generally larger, root systems are likely to retain nitrogen (N) better, decreasing harmful losses of N and improving fertilizer N use efficiency, but there have been no comprehensive N fertilizer recovery studies in IWG to date. We measured fertilizer N recovery with stable isotope tracers in crop biomass and soil, soil N mineralization and nitrification, and nitrate leaching in IWG and annual wheat in a replicated block field experiment. Nitrate leaching was drastically reduced in IWG (0.1 and 3.1 kg N ha−1 yr−1) in its third and fourth year since establishment, compared with 5.6 kg N ha−1 yr−1 in annual wheat and 41.0 kg N ha−1 yr−1 in fallow respectively. There were no differences in net N mineralization or nitrification between IWG and annual wheat, though there was generally more inorganic N in the soil profile of annual wheat. More 15N fertilizer was recovered in the straw and all depths of the roots and soils in IWG than annual wheat. However, annual wheat recovered much more 15N fertilizer in the seeds compared to IWG, which had lower grain yields. 15N-labeled fertilizer contributed little (<3 %) to nitrate–N in leachate, highlighting the role of soil microbes in regulating loss of current year fertilizer N. The large reduction in nitrate leaching demonstrates that perennial grains can reduce harmful nitrogen losses and offer a more sustainable alternative to annual grains.

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