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Managing Carbon Loss

The push for alternative energy has created a large demand for corn stover, a popular feedstock used to produce cellulosic ethanol, but utilizing these materials, rather than using it as compost, means a loss of soil organic carbon. Researchers have studied the effectiveness of alternative carbon augmentation practices and have reported positive results, as detailed in the November-December 2008 issue of Agronomy Journal.

As the United States continues to develop alternative energy methods and push towards energy independence, cellulosic-based ethanol has emerged as one of the most commercially viable technologies. Corn stover remains the most popular source available, but the loss of soil organic carbon (SOC) associated with the removal of corn fodder as a cellulosic ethanol feedstock is of agricultural and environmental concern.

In the November-December 2008 issue of Agronomy Journal, scientists from Michigan State University report on the effectiveness of carbon augmentation practices, including the integration of cover crops, manure, and compost, to supplant carbon loss in corn stover removed cropping systems. The results indicate that corn stover based bioenergy cropping systems can be managed to increase short-term carbon sequestration rates and reduce overall net global warming potential by using no-till planting methods and a manure-based nutrient management system.

The research team measured soil carbon changes as well as nitrous oxide and methane gas emissions from corn stover-ethanol field plots managed under various carbon augmentation practices. In addition to the gas emissions measured in the field, other carbon emissions assessed included estimates for the manufacturing carbon cost of crop inputs; methane emissions from the livestock manure source; methane and nitrous oxides generated during manure storage and application; and the fuel used in crop production and in gathering and land applying the manure.

“These results show that bioenergy cropping systems, particularly those integrating livestock manure into their management scheme, are a win-win option on both alternative energy and environmental fronts,” says Kurt Thelen, member of the research team.

Thelen says this research demonstrates that under proper management, livestock manure can supplant carbon lost from corn stover removal, and actually provide an environmental benefit, both in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation, and from the established improved soil properties associated with increasing SOC levels such as increased water retention.

“For every gallon of gasoline burned, the equivalent of 19 lbs of CO2 is released to the atmosphere which contributes to the environmental GHG problem,” says Thelen. “Conversely, this work shows that in the not too distant future, choosing a cellulosic ethanol alternative at the pump may actually result in a net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.”

Research is ongoing at Michigan State University to evaluate the environmental, agronomic, and economic sustainability of bioenergy cropping systems. Support for this work was provided by USDA-CSREES, the CASMGS program, and the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station.

The full article is available for no charge for 30 days following the date of this summary. View the abstract at

A peer-reviewed international journal of agriculture and natural resource sciences, Agronomy Journal is published six times a year by the American Society of Agronomy, with articles relating to original research in soil science, crop science, agroclimatology and agronomic modeling, production agriculture, and software. For more information visit:

The American Society of Agronomy (ASA), is a scientific society helping its 8,000+ members advance the disciplines and practices of agronomy by supporting professional growth and science policy initiatives, and by providing quality, research-based publications and a variety of member services.

Sara Uttech | Newswise Science News
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Further reports about: Agronomy CO2 Carbon GHG alternative energy cellulosic ethanol gas emission

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