Page Banner

United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Title: Crop and Soil Productivity Response to Corn Residue Removal: a Literature Review

Authors
item Wilhelm, Wallace
item Johnson, Jane
item Hatfield, Jerry
item Voorhees, W - RET ARS/MORRIS MN
item Linden, Dennis

Submitted to: Agronomy Journal
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: December 12, 2002
Publication Date: February 2, 2004
Citation: WILHELM, W.W., JOHNSON, J.M., HATFIELD, J.L., VOORHEES, W.B., LINDEN, D.R. CROP AND SOIL PRODUCTIVITY RESPONSE TO CORN RESIDUE REMOVAL: A LITERATURE REVIEW. AGRONOMY JOURNAL. 96:1-17. 2004.

Interpretive Summary: Society is facing three related issues, over-reliance on fossil fuels, increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and capacity to produce sufficient food to feed a growing world population. The US Department of Energy and private enterprise are developing organisms that can breakdown cellulose and hemicellulose (the major structural components in the stems and leaves of plants) to sugar. These sugars can be used directly or fermented into ethanol. Based on grain production records and the ratio of grain to stover, corn can provide about 1.7 times more dry matter (carbon) for fermentation than sorghum, soybean, sunflower, or wheat. All grain crops product residues, which have traditionally been returned to the soil directly or after being used as feed or fodder for animals. Residues returned to the soil become part of the soil organic matter through microbial decomposition. Crop residue on the soil surface or as soil organic matter benefit crop production in many ways, such as, controlling of erosion and runoff, cycling nutrients, and improving soil tilth. The benefits of removing crop residue from the field (increasing income for growers and providing a renewable domestic source of energy) must be balanced against environmental impacts (soil erosion), maintaining soil carbon levels (sequestration of greenhouse gases), and preserving or enhancing productivity (soil tilth and nutrient cycling). All ramifications of this new management practice and crop use (harvesting crop residues for energy production) must be explored and evaluated fully before an industry is established. Our conclusion is that within limits, corn stover can be harvested for ethanol production providing a renewable source of energy that recycles greenhouse gases. Recommendation for removal rates will vary based on crop yield, climatic conditions, and cultural practices. Agronomists are challenged to develop a procedure for recommending maximum removal rates that ensure soil productive capacity is maintained or enhanced.

Technical Abstract: Society is facing three related issues, over-reliance on fossil fuels, increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and production of sufficient food to feed a growing world population. The US Department of Energy and private enterprise are developing the technology necessary to use high cellulose feedstock for ethanol production. Corn (Zea mays L.) residue can provide about 1.7 times more C than barley (Hordeum vulgare L.), oat (Avena sativa L.), sorghum [Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench], soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr.], sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.), and wheat (Triticum estavium L.) residues based on grain production. Removal of crops residue from the field must be balanced against environmental impacts (soil erosion), maintaining soil organic matter levels, and preserving or enhancing productivity. Our objective is to interpret published works for potential impacts of wide-scale, corn stover collection on corn production capacity in Corn Belt soils. We address the issue of crop yield (sustainability) and related soil processes directly, but the issue of greenhouse gases is dealt with indirectly and by inference. All ramifications of new management practices and crop uses must be explored and evaluated fully before an industry is established. Our conclusion is that within limits, corn stover can be harvested for ethanol production providing a renewable, domestic source of energy, which recycles greenhouse gases. Recommendation for removal rates will vary based on regional yield, climatic conditions, and cultural practices. Agronomists are challenged to develop a procedure (tool) for recommending maximum removal rates that ensure a soil's productivity capacity is sustained. [REAP Publication]

Last Modified: 7/24/2014