The impact of organic, compared with conventional, farming practices on N leaching loss was studied for Danish mixed dairy and arable farms using an N balance approach based on representative data. On mixed dairy farms, a simple N balance method was used to estimate N surplus and N leaching loss. On arable farms, the simple N balance method was unreliable due to changes in the soil N pool. Consequently, the Farm ASSEssment Tool (FASSET) simulation model was used to estimate N surplus, N leaching loss and the changes in the soil N pool.
The study found a lower N leaching loss from organic than conventional mixed dairy farms, primarily due to lower N inputs. On organic arable farms, the soil N pool increased over time but the N leaching loss was comparable with conventional arable farms. The soil N pool was increased primarily by organic farming practices and incorporation of straw. The highest increase in the soil N pool was seen on soils with a low initial level of organic matter. The N leaching loss was dependent on soil type, the use of catch crops and the level of soil organic matter, whereas incorporation of straw had a minor effect. N leaching was highest on sandy soils with a high level of soil organic matter and no catch crops. The present results stress the importance of using representative data from organic and conventional farming practices in comparative studies of N leaching loss. Lack of representative data has been a major weakness of previous comparisons on N leaching losses on organic and conventional farms.