Agronomist weighs environmental impacts of corn residue removal

April 3, 2015 by Fred Love, Iowa State University

Farmers who are considering selling corn residue from their fields to produce cellulosic ethanol first should weigh a range of site-specific factors to their operations, according to new research from an Iowa State University agronomist.

Mahdi Al-Kaisi, a professor of agronomy, is urging farmers to take a thoughtful approach that accounts for variables such as topography, tillage system, nitrogen application and the amount of present in their to determine how much corn residue, or the plant material left behind after harvest, they should part with.

"Residue removal has some real environmental impacts on soil health and water quality," Al-Kaisi said. "It needs to be approached thoughtfully and on a site-specific condition basis."

His most recent publication, appearing in the peer-reviewed Soil Science Society of America Journal, shows how a decrease in can lead to increases in from the soil.

Al-Kaisi began the study in 2008. The research examines how the loss of corn residue interacts with other variables to affect soil quality and the environment. The need for the research arose from the continued development of cellulosic ethanol, a biofuel made from corn residue. One is up and running in Emmetsburg, and another is under construction in Nevada.

But as the technology continues to mature, cellulosic plants will require more and more feedstock to fuel production. Much of that feedstock likely will come from crop residue on Iowa farmland. Al-Kaisi said research like his will help to balance the needs of the industry with information that can help farmers safeguard their soil.

The research team conducted experiments at two locations, one in central Iowa and one in southwest Iowa, and monitored the effects of removing portions of corn residue from the test plots on yield, soil organic matter, greenhouse gas emissions and soil quality. The team also tested how various residue removal levels interact with different nitrogen rates and tillage systems such as no-till and conventional tillage.

The research found a general increase in the emissions of and nitrous oxide from all residue removal plots as nitrogen application increased. They also found that conventional tillage led to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions regardless of the residue removal level.

As residue is removed, black surface soil is exposed to direct sunlight. The dark surface absorbs heat and results in an increase in the oxidation of organic matter and the release of carbon dioxide, Al-Kaisi said.

A previous paper published as a result of the study noted residue removal results in less organic matter in the soil, which Al-Kaisi said could lead to diminished productivity in the long term. Farmers should also exercise caution when considering the removal of residue from fields prone to erosion.

"Residue protects soil from wind and water erosion, so removing it should be based on field-specific conditions and potential soil erosion," Al-Kaisi said. "Farmers who are going to remove corn residue should make sure they know how these different factors interact when making these decisions."

Explore further: Preventing soil erosion in continuous corn

More information: "Greenhouse Gas Emissions Dynamics as Influenced by Corn Residue Removal in Continuous Corn System" Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 2015. 79:612–625. DOI: 10.2136/sssaj2014.07.0298

Related Stories

Preventing soil erosion in continuous corn

January 12, 2009

With recent increase in the cost of energy and subsequent explorations into alternative energy sources, the increased harvest of corn residue for cellulosic ethanol production is likely in the future. This may be especially ...

Energy crops impact environmental quality

April 4, 2010

Crop residues, perennial warm season grasses, and short-rotation woody crops are potential biomass sources for cellulosic ethanol production. While most research is focused on the conversion of cellulosic feeedstocks into ...

Corn cobs eyed for bioenergy production

January 31, 2013

Corn crop residues are often left on harvested fields to protect soil quality, but they could become an important raw material in cellulosic ethanol production. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research indicates that ...

Recommended for you

Machine learning identifies links between world's oceans

March 21, 2019

Oceanographers studying the physics of the global ocean have long found themselves facing a conundrum: Fluid dynamical balances can vary greatly from point to point, rendering it difficult to make global generalizations.

How fluid viscosity affects earthquake intensity

March 21, 2019

Fault zones play a key role in shaping the deformation of the Earth's crust. All of these zones contain fluids, which heavily influence how earthquakes propagate. In an article published today in Nature Communications, Chiara ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

gkam
not rated yet Apr 03, 2015
Biomass should not be burned, but used to rebuild the soil. The cellulose provides tilth to the soil, and acts as substrates for bacteria which do the real job of providing nutrients for plants. We have known that for ages, but it is hard to talk to someone with dollar signs in their eyes.
Bongstar420
not rated yet Apr 03, 2015
Who cares about the "environmental" impacts. That will cause productivity to decline over the long run and ultimately undermine our ability to be productive. Who wants to be poor (their money will be worthless at the end of the game, with Gold) and starving?

Biomass should not be burned, but used to rebuild the soil. The cellulose provides tilth to the soil, and acts as substrates for bacteria which do the real job of providing nutrients for plants. We have known that for ages, but it is hard to talk to someone with dollar signs in their eyes.


Tilth is just so roots can breath and so the fertilizer "sticks" to the soil instead of being washed away (which is happens to low quality soils).

Actually, gkam doesn't understand that money (maintaining a productive system) is why you preserve tilth

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.