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Research article2023Peer reviewedOpen access

Effect of short-term perennial leys on life cycle environmental performance of cropping systems: An assessment based on data from a long-term field experiment

Nilsson, Johan; El Khosht, Fatima F.; Bergkvist, Goran; Oborn, Ingrid; Tidaker, Pernilla


Modern agriculture's dependence on the intensive use of inputs, such as chemical fertiliser and pesticides, leads to high environmental impacts and, possibly, vulnerability in food security, since most of these inputs are im-ported from other countries. This calls for more sustainable and resilient agricultural practices. Diversification of crop rotations, e.g. by including perennial leys, enhances provision of ecosystem services, leading to healthier crops and increased yields. Perennial crops also increase soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks, which is interesting from a global warming mitigation perspective. In addition, legume-rich leys can utilise atmospheric nitrogen (N) through symbiotic association with N2-fixing bacteria. However, few studies have evaluated the effects of short-term perennial leys in rotation on cropping system performance over long periods and under different conditions. In this study, we used data from three sites in a long-term experiment in Sweden (initiated in the 1960 s), in combination with Life Cycle Assessment methodology, to assess the environmental and yield effect of including ley in crop rotations. Two N fertiliser regimes (High, Low) in combination with three six-year crop rotations, consisting of either i) two-year mixed grass-legume ley, ii) two-year pure grass ley or iii) annual crops without ley, were compared. Environmental impacts (climate impact, energy resource depletion, eutrophication poten-tial) of the different combinations were quantified per kg harvested crop (expressed in cereal units, CU) and per hectare. The lowest environmental impact, at all sites, was found for the crop rotation with two-year mixed ley under the Low N regime. On average, this combination resulted in 329 g lower GHG emissions per kg CU than the crop rotation without ley and Low N, primarily due to lower input of chemical N fertiliser, which reduced the impact from fertiliser production and soil N2O emissions. Comparison of mean SOC change over the study period revealed reduced SOC stocks for all rotations and all sites, especially in the rotation without ley. Therefore, including short-term perennial leys, especially leys containing legume species, in crop rotations can be a useful tool in meeting policy targets on reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture, and in reducing the dependence on purchased agricultural commodities. However, despite the potential benefits of rotational leys, the market demand for the produced ley biomass may be insufficient. Hence, incentives to increase demand are necessary to promote large-scale adoption, for example, for use in bioenergy production and feed.


Cereal unit (CU); Climate impact; Crop rotation; Life Cycle Assessment (LCA); Nitrogen fertilizer; Soil carbon sequestration

Published in

European Journal of Agronomy
2023, Volume: 149, article number: 126888
Publisher: ELSEVIER