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.
Corn (Zea mays L.) stover is a potential bioenergy feedstock, but little is known about the impacts of reducing stover return on yield and soil quality in the Northern US Corn Belt. Our study objectives were to measure the impact of three stover return rates (Full (~7.8 Mg ha−1 yr−1), Moderate (~3.8 Mg ha−1 yr−1) or Low (~1.5 Mg ha yr−1) Return) on corn and soybean (Glycine max. L [Merr.]) yields and on soil dynamic properties on a chisel-tilled (Chisel) field, and well- (NT1995) or newly- (NT2005) established no-till managed fields. Stover return rate did not affect corn and soybean yields except under NT1995 where Low Return (2.88 Mg ha−1) reduced yields compared with Full and Moderate Return (3.13 Mg ha−1). In NT1995 at 0–5 cm depth, particulate organic matter in Full Return and Moderate Return (14.3 g kg−1) exceeded Low Return (11.3 g kg−1). In NT2005, acid phosphatase activity was reduced about 20% in Low Return compared to Full Return. Also the Low Return had an increase in erodible-sized dry aggregates at the soil surface compared to Full Return. Three or fewer cycles of stover treatments revealed little evidence for short-term impacts on crop yield, but detected subtle soil changes that indicate repeated harvests may have negative consequences if stover removed.
In-field measurements of direct soil greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions provide critical data for quantifying the net energy efficiency and economic feasibility of crop residue-based bioenergy production systems. A major challenge to such assessments has been the paucity of field studies addressing the effects of crop residue removal and associated best practices for soil management (i.e., conservation tillage) on soil emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), and methane (CH4). This regional survey summarizes soil GHG emissions from nine maize production systems evaluating different levels of corn stover removal under conventional or conservation tillage management across the US Corn Belt. Cumulative growing season soil emissions of CO2, N2O, and/or CH4 were measured for 2–5 years (2008–2012) at these various sites using a standardized static vented chamber technique as part of the USDA-ARS’s Resilient Economic Agricultural Practices (REAP) regional partnership. Cumulative soil GHG emissions during the growing season varied widely across sites, by management, and by year. Overall, corn stover removal decreased soil total CO2 and N2O emissions by -4 and -7 %, respectively, relative to no removal. No management treatments affected soil CH4 fluxes. When aggregated to total GHG emissions (Mg CO2 eq ha−1) across all sites and years, corn stover removal decreased growing season soil emissions by −5 ± 1 % (mean ± se) and ranged from -36 % to 54 % (n = 50). Lower GHG emissions in stover removal treatments were attributed to decreased C and N inputs into soils, as well as possible microclimatic differences associated with changes in soil cover. High levels of spatial and temporal variabilities in direct GHG emissions highlighted the importance of site-specific management and environmental conditions on the dynamics of GHG emissions from agricultural soils.