A five-year assessment of corn stover harvest in central Iowa, USA

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Birrell, Stuart
Hess, J. Richard
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Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering

Sustainable feedstock harvest strategies are needed to ensure bioenergy production does not irreversibly degrade soil resources. The objective for this study was to document corn (Zea mays L.) grain and stover fraction yields, plant nutrient removal and replacement costs, feedstock quality, soil-test changes, and soil quality indicator response to four stover harvest strategies for continuous corn and a corn–soybean [Glycine max. (L.) Merr.] rotation. The treatments included collecting (1) all standing plant material above a stubble height of 10 cm (whole plant), (2) the upper-half by height (ear shank upward), (3) the lower-half by height (from the 10 cm stubble height to just below the earshank), or (4) no removal. Collectable biomass from Treatment 2 averaged 3.9 (±0.8) Mg ha−1 for continuous corn (2005 through 2009), and 4.8 (±0.4) Mg ha−1 for the rotated corn (2005, 2007, and 2009). Compared to harvesting only the grain, collecting stover increased the average N–P–K removal by 29, 3 and 34 kg ha−1 for continuous corn and 42, 3, and 34 kg ha−1 for rotated corn, respectively. Harvesting the lower-half of the corn plant (Treatment 3) required two passes, resulted in frequent plugging of the combine, and provided a feedstock with low quality for conversion to biofuel. Therefore, Treatment 3 was replaced by a “cobs-only” harvest starting in 2009. Structural sugars glucan and xylan accounted for up to 60% of the chemical composition, while galactan, arabinan, and mannose constituted less than 5% of the harvest fractions collected from 2005 through 2008. Soil-test data from samples collected after the first harvest (2005) revealed low to very low plant-available P and K levels which reduced soybean yield in 2006 after harvesting the whole-plant in 2005. Average continuous corn yields were 21% lower than rotated yields with no significant differences due to stover harvest. Rotated corn yields in 2009 showed some significant differences, presumably because soil-test P was again in the low range. A soil quality analysis using the Soil Management Assessment Framework (SMAF) with six indicators showed that soils at the continuous corn and rotated sites were functioning at an average of 93 and 83% of their inherent potential, respectively. With good crop management practices, including routine soil-testing, adequate fertilization, maintenance of soil organic matter, sustained soil structure, and prevention of wind, water or tillage erosion, a portion of the corn stover being produced in central Iowa, USA can be harvested in a sustainable manner.


This article is from Soil and Tillage Reserach 115–116 (2011): 47–55, doi:10.1016/j.still.2011.06.006.