Agronomy and Horticulture Department


Date of this Version



Published in Agron. J. 96:1–17 (2004).


Society is facing three related issues: over-reliance on imported fuel, increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and producing sufficient food for a growing world population. The U.S. Department of Energy and private enterprise are developing technology necessary to use high-cellulose feedstock, such as crop residues, for ethanol production. Corn (Zea mays L.) residue can provide about 1.7 times more C than barley (Hordeum vulgare L.), oat (Avena sativa L.), sorghum [Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench], soybean [Glycine max L.) Merr.], sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.), and wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) residues based on production levels. Removal of crop residue from the field must be balanced against impacting the environment (soil erosion), maintaining soil organic matter levels, and pre- serving or enhancing productivity. Our objective is to summarize published works for potential impacts of wide-scale, corn stover collection on corn production capacity in Corn Belt soils. We address the issue crop yield (sustainability) and related soil processes directly. However, scarcity of data requires us to deal with the issue of greenhouse gases indirectly and by inference. All ramifications of new management practices and crop uses must be explored and evaluated fully before industry is established. Our conclusion is that within limits, corn stover can be harvested for ethanol production to provide a renewable, domestic source of energy that reduces greenhouse gases. Recommendation for removal rates will vary based on regional yield, climatic conditions, and cultural practices. Agronomists are challenged to develop a procedure (tool) for recommending maximum permissible removal rates that ensure sustained soil productivity.