Cover crops provide ecosystem services such as storing atmospheric carbon in soils after incorporation of their residues. Cover crops also influence soil water balance, which can be an issue in temperate climates with dry summers as for example in southern France and Europe. As a consequence, it is necessary to understand cover crops’ long-term influence on greenhouse gases (GHG) and water balances to assess their potential to mitigate climate change in arable cropping systems. We used the previously calibrated and validated soil-crop model STICS to simulate scenarios of cover crop introduction to assess their influence on rainfed and irrigated cropping systems and crop rotations distributed among five contrasted sites in southern France from 2007-2052. Our results showed that cover crops can improve mean direct GHG balance by 315 kg CO2e ha⁻¹ yr⁻¹ in the long term compared to that of bare soil. This was due mainly to an increase in carbon storage in the soil despite a slight increase in N2O emissions which can be compensate by adapting fertilization. Cover crops also influence the water balance by reducing mean annual drainage by 20 mm yr⁻¹ but increasing mean annual evapotranspiration by 20 mm yr⁻¹ compared to those of bare soil. Using cover crops to improve the GHG balance may help to mitigate climate change by decreasing CO2e emitted in cropping systems which can represent a decrease from 4.5 to 9% of annual GHG emissions of the French agriculture and forestry sector. However, if not well managed, they also could create water management issues in watersheds with shallow groundwater. Relationships between cover crop biomass and its influence on several variables such as drainage, carbon sequestration and GHG emissions could be used to extend our results to other conditions to assess the cover crops influence in a wider range of areas.
Agriculture contributes to a significant proportion of global emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) but can also participate in climate change mitigation. The introduction of legumes in crop rotations reduces the dependence on N fertilizers and may mitigate the carbon (C) footprint of cropping systems. The aim of this study was to quantify the C footprint of six low-input arable cropping systems resulting from the combination of three levels of grain legumes introduction in a 3-yr rotation (GL0: no grain legumes, GL1: 1 grain legume, GL2: 2 grain legumes) and the use of cover crops (CC) or bare fallow (BF) between cash crops, covering two rotation cycles (6 years). The approach considered external emissions, on-site emissions and soil organic carbon (SOC) stock changes, and rioritized (i) field observations and (ii) simulation of non-measured variables with the STICS model, rather than default emission factors. As expected, fertilizers accounted for 80–90% of external emissions, being reduced by 50% and 102% with grain legumes introduction in GL1-BF and GL2-BF, compared to the cereal-based rotation (GL0-BF). Cover crops management increased machinery emissions by 24–35% compared to BF. Soil nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions were low, ranging between 205 and 333 kg CO2 eq. ha−1 yr−1 in GL1-BF and GL0-BF, respectively. Nitrate leaching represented the indirect emission of 11.6 to 27.2 kg CO2 eq. ha−1 yr−1 in the BF treatments and 8.2 to 10.7 kg CO2 eq. ha−1 yr−1 in the CC treatments. Indirect emissions due to ammonia volatilization ranged between 8.4 and 41.8 kg CO2 eq. ha−1 yr−1. The introduction of grain legumes strongly influenced SOC changes and, consequently, the C footprint. In the BF systems, grain legumes introduction in the rotations led to a significant increase in the C footprint, because of higher SOC losses. Contrarily, the use of cover crops mitigated SOC losses, and lowered the C footprint. These results indicated the need of CC when increasing the number of grain legumes in cereal-based rotations. Despite the multiple known benefits of introducing grain legumes in cropping systems our research highlights the need to consider soil organic carbon changes in environmental assessments.