Leguminous cover crop Astragalus sinicus enhances grain yields and nitrogen use efficiency through increased tillering in an intensive double-cropping rice system in southern China
Chinese milk vetch (Astragalus sinicus L., vetch), a leguminous winter cover crop, has been widely adopted by farmers in southern China to boost yield of the succeeding rice crop. However, the effects of vetch on rice grain yield and nitrogen (N) use efficiency have not yet been well studied in the intensive double-cropped rice cropping systems. To fill this gap, we conducted a three-year field experiment to evaluate the impacts of the vetch crop on yields and N use efficiency in the subsequent early and late rice seasons. With moderate N input (100 kg N ha−1 for each rice crop), vetch cover significantly increased grain yields by 7.3–13.4% for early rice, by 8.2–10.4% for late rice, and by 8.6–11.5% for total annual rice production when compared with winter fallow. When rice crops received an N input of 200 kg N ha−1, vetch cover increased grain yields by 5.9–18.4% for early rice, by 3.8–10.1% for late rice, and by 6.2–11.3% for annual rice production. Moreover, comparable grain yields (11.9 vs. 12.0 Mg ha−1 for annual rice production) were observed between vetch cover with moderate N and fallow with added N fertilizer. Yield components analysis indicated that the increased tillering number was the main factor for the enhanced grain yields by vetch cover. Vetch cover with moderate and higher N input resulted in higher agronomic N use efficiency and applied N recovery efficiency compared with the fallow treatments. Here, our results showed that vetch as a winter cover crop can be combined with reduced N fertilizer input while maintaining high grain yields, thus gaining a more sustainable rice production system.