The United States has embarked on an ambitious program to develop technology and infrastructure to economically and sustainably produce ethanol from biomass. Corn stover, the above-ground material left in fields after corn grain harvest, has been identified as a primary feedstock. Stover and other crop biomass or residue is frequently referred to as "trash" or a waste, implying it has minimal value. However, when returned to the land, this carbon-rich material helps control erosion, replenishes soil organic matter, and improves soil quality. Organic matter in the soil retains and recycles nutrients and improves soil structure, aeration, and water exchange characteristics. In addition, organic matter is the energy source for the soil ecosystem.
"Sustainable biofuel production will require that the functions of organic matter in the soil be addressed before crop residue is removed from the land," states Doug Karlen, USDA-ARS soil scientist at the National Soil Tilth Laboratory at Ames, IA.
Dave Lightle, USDA-NRCS agronomist with the National Soil Survey Center in Lincoln, NE says, "To date, projected sustainable harvest levels have been calculated by reducing total stover production by amounts needed to keep soil erosion losses within accepted limits."
Most estimates of the amount of crop residue that can be sustainably harvested consider only erosion as a constraining factor, without considering the need to maintain soil organic matter. Recently Jane Johnson and her coworkers at the USDA-ARS North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory at Morris, MN, reported estimates of the minimum biomass input needed to maintain soil organic matter.
Wally Wilhelm, USDA-ARS scientist with the Agroecosystems Management Research Unit, Lincoln, NE, and his team compared the amount of stover needed to replenish soil organic matter and control water and wind erosion under a limited number of production conditionscontinuous corn and co
|Contact: Sara Uttech|
American Society of Agronomy