Harvesting of corn stover (plant residues) for cellulosic ethanol production must be balanced with the requirement for returning plant residues to agricultural fields to maintain soil structure, fertility, crop protection, and other ecosystem services. High rates of corn stover removal can be associated with decreased soil organic matter (SOM) quantity and quality and increased highly erodible soil aggregate fractions. Limited data are available on the impact of stover harvesting on soil microbial communities which are critical because of their fundamental relationships with C and N cycles, soil fertility, crop protection, and stresses that might be imposed by climate change. Using fatty acid and DNA analyses, we evaluated relative changes in soil fungal and bacterial densities and fungal-to-bacterial (F:B) ratios in response to corn stover removal under no-till, rain-fed management. These studies were performed at four different US locations with contrasting soil-climatic conditions. At one location, residue removal significantly decreased F:B ratios. At this location, cover cropping significantly increased F:B ratios at the highest level of residue removal and thus may be an important practice to minimize changes in soil microbial communities where corn stover is harvested. We also found that in these no-till systems, the 0- to 5-cm depth interval is most likely to experience changes, and detectable effects of stover removal on soil microbial community structure will depend on the duration of stover removal, sampling time, soil type, and annual weather patterns. No-till practices may have limited the rate of change in soil properties associated with stover removal compared to more extensive changes reported at a limited number of tilled sites. Documenting changes in soil microbial communities with stover removal under differing soil-climatic and management conditions will guide threshold levels of stover removal and identify practices (e.g., no-till, cover cropping) that may mitigate undesirable changes in soil properties.
Net benefits of bioenergy crops, including maize and perennial grasses such as switchgrass, are a function of several factors including the soil organic carbon (SOC) sequestered by these crops. Life cycle assessments (LCA) for bioenergy crops have been conducted using models in which SOC information is usually from the top 30 to 40 cm. Information on the effects of crop management practices on SOC has been limited so LCA models have largely not included any management practice effects. In the first 9 years of a long-term C sequestration study in eastern Nebraska, USA, switchgrass and maize with best management practices had average annual increases in SOC per hectare that exceed 2 Mg C year−1 (7.3 Mg CO2 year−1) for the 0 to 150 soil depth. For both switchgrass and maize, over 50 % of the increase in SOC was below the 30 cm depth. SOC sequestration by switchgrass was twofold to fourfold greater than that used in models to date which also assumed no SOC sequestration by maize. The results indicate that N fertilizer rates and harvest management regimes can affect the magnitude of SOC sequestration. The use of uniform soil C effects for bioenergy crops from sampling depths of 30 to 40 cm across agro-ecoregions for large scale LCA is questionable.
Crop intensification is often thought to increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but studies in which crop management is optimized to exploit crop yield potential are rare. We conducted a field study in eastern Nebraska, USA to quantify GHG emissions, changes in soil organic carbon (SOC) and the net global warming potential (GWP) in four irrigated systems: continuous maize with recommended best management practices (CC-rec) or intensive management (CC-int) and maize–soybean rotation with recommended (CS-rec) or intensive management (CS-int). Grain yields of maize and soybean were generally within 80–100% of the estimated site yield potential. Large soil surface carbon dioxide (CO2) fluxes were mostly associated with rapid crop growth, high temperature and high soil water content. Within each crop rotation, soil CO2 efflux under intensive management was not consistently higher than with recommended management. Owing to differences in residue inputs, SOC increased in the two continuous maize systems, but decreased in CS-rec or remained unchanged in CS-int. N2O emission peaks were mainly associated with high temperature and high soil water content resulting from rainfall or irrigation events, but less clearly related to soil NO3-N levels. N2O fluxes in intensively managed systems were only occasionally greater than those measured in the CC-rec and CS-rec systems. Fertilizer-induced N2O emissions ranged from 1.9% to 3.5% in 2003, from 0.8% to 1.5% in 2004 and from 0.4% to 0.5% in 2005, with no consistent differences among the four systems. All four cropping systems where net sources of GHG. However, due to increased soil C sequestration continuous maize systems had lower GWP than maize–soybean systems and intensive management did not cause a significant increase in GWP. Converting maize grain to ethanol in the two continuous maize systems resulted in a net reduction in life cycle GHG emissions of maize ethanol relative to petrol-based gasoline by 33–38%. Our study provided evidence that net GHG emissions from agricultural systems can be kept low when management is optimized toward better exploitation of the yield potential. Major components for this included (i) choosing the right combination of adopted varieties, planting date and plant population to maximize crop biomass productivity, (ii) tactical water and nitrogen (N) management decisions that contributed to high N use efficiency and avoided extreme N2O emissions, and (iii) a deep tillage and residue management approach that favored the build-up of soil organic matter from large amounts of crop residues returned.