BioEnergy Research

, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp 481–490 | Cite as

Crop Residue Mass Needed to Maintain Soil Organic Carbon Levels: Can It Be Determined?

  • Jane M. F. JohnsonEmail author
  • Jeff M. Novak
  • Gary E. Varvel
  • Diane E. Stott
  • Shannon L. Osborne
  • Douglas L. Karlen
  • John A. Lamb
  • John Baker
  • Paul R. Adler


Corn’s (Zea mays L.) stover is a potential nonfood, herbaceous bioenergy feedstock. A vital aspect of utilizing stover for bioenergy production is to establish sustainable harvest criteria that avoid exacerbating soil erosion or degrading soil organic carbon (SOC) levels. Our goal is to empirically estimate the minimum residue return rate required to sustain SOC levels at numerous locations and to identify which macroscale factors affect empirical estimates. Minimum residue return rate is conceptually useful, but only if the study is of long enough duration and a relationship between the rate of residue returned and the change in SOC can be measured. About one third of the Corn Stover Regional Partnership team (Team) sites met these criteria with a minimum residue return rate of 3.9 ± 2.18 Mg stover ha−1 yr−1, n = 6. Based on the Team and published corn-based data (n = 35), minimum residue return rate was 6.38 ± 2.19 Mg stover ha−1 yr−1, while including data from other cropping systems (n = 49), the rate averaged 5.74 ± 2.36 Mg residue ha−1 yr−1. In broad general terms, keeping about 6 Mg residue ha−1 yr−1 maybe a useful generic rate as a point of discussion; however, these analyses refute that a generic rate represents a universal target on which to base harvest recommendations at a given site. Empirical data are needed to calibrate, validate, and refine process-based models so that valid sustainable harvest rate guidelines are provided to producers, industry, and action agencies.


Bioenergy Second generation feedstock Sustainable Renewable energy 



Funding for this project was provided by the US Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), as part of the USDA-ARS Renewable Energy Assessment Project (REAP). Additional funding was provided by the North Central Regional Sun Grant Center at South Dakota State University through a grant provided by the US Department of Energy—Office of Biomass Programs under award no. DE-FC36-05GO85041

Supplementary material

12155_2013_9402_MOESM1_ESM.docx (26 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 26 kb)


  1. 1.
    Balesdent J, Balabane M (1996) Major contribution of roots to soil carbon storage inferred from maize cultivated soils. Soil Biol Biochem 28:1261–1263CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Bonner IJ, Muth DJJ, Koch JB, Karlen DL (2014) Agronomic strategies to increase biomass production and enhance soil quality. Bio Energy ResGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Dalzell BJ, Johnson JMF, Tallaksen J, Allan DL, Barbour NW (2013) Simulated impacts of crop residue removal and tillage on soil organic matter maintenance. Soil Sci Soc Am J 77:1349–1356CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Follett RF, Vogel KP, Varvel GE, Mitchell RB, Kimble J (2012) Soil carbon sequestration by switchgrass and no-till maize grown for bioenergy. Bioenerg Res 5:866–875CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Franzluebbers AJ (2002) Soil organic matter stratification ratio as an indicator of soil quality. Soil Tillage Res 66:95–106CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Franzluebbers AJ, Arshad MA (1996) Soil organic matter pools during early adoption of conservation tillage in Northwestern Canada. Soil Sci Soc Am J 60:1422–1427CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Ghidey F, Alberts E (1993) Residue type and placement effects on decomposition: field study at model evaluation. Trans ASAE 36:1611–1617CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Gollany HT, Novak JM, Liang Y, Albrecht SL, Rickman RW, Follett RF et al (2010) Simulating soil organic carbon dynamics with residue removal using the CQESTR model. Soil Sci Soc Am J 74:372–383CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Halvorson AD, Schlegel AJ (2012) Crop rotation effect on soil carbon and nitrogen stocks under limited irrigation. Agron J 104:1265–1273CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Hammerbeck AL, Stetson SJ, Osborne SL, Schumacher TE, Pikul JL Jr (2012) Corn residue removal impact on soil aggregates in a no-till corn/soybean rotation. Soil Sci Soc Am J 76:1390–1398CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Hassink J (1997) The capacity of soils to preserve organic C and N by their association with clay and silt particles. Plant Soil 191:77–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Hunt PG, Karlen DL, Matheny TA, Quisenberry VL (1996) Changes in carbon content of a Norfolk loamy sand after 14 years of conservation or conventional tillage. J Soil Water Conserv 51:255–258Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Johnson JMF, Acosta-Martinez V, Cambardella CA, Barbour NW (2013) Crop and soil responses to using corn stover as a bioenergy feedstock: observations from the Northern US Corn Belt. Agriculture 3:72–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Johnson JMF, Allmaras RR, Reicosky DC (2006) Estimating source carbon from crop residues, roots and rhizodeposits using the national grain-yield database. Agron J 98:622–636CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Johnson JMF, Barbour NW, Weyers SL (2007) Chemical composition of crop biomass impacts its decomposition. Soil Sci Soc Am J 71:155–162CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Johnson JMF, Papiernik SK, Mikha MM, Spokas KA, Tomer MD, Weyers SL (2010) Soil processes and residue harvest management. In: Lal R, Stewart BA (eds) Carbon management, fuels, and soil quality. Taylor & Francis, New York, pp 1–44Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Karlen DL (2010) Corn stover feedstock trials to support predictive modeling. Global Change Biol Bioenergy 2:235–247CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Karlen DL, Birrell SJ, Johnson JMF, Osborne SL, Schumacher TE, Varvel GE et al. (2014) Multi-location corn stover harvest effects on crop yields and nutrient removal. Bio Energy ResGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Karlen DL, Varvel GE, Johnson JMF, Baker J, Osborne SL, Novak JM et al (2011) Monitoring soil quality to assess the sustainability of harvesting corn stover. Agron J 103:288–295CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Lal R, Kimble JM, Follett RF, Cole CV (ed.) (1999) The potential of U.S. cropland to sequester carbon and mitigate the greenhouse effect. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FLGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Lal R, Kimble JM, Follett RF, Stewart BA (eds) (2001) Assessment methods for soil carbon. Lewis, Boca Raton, FLGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Larson WE, Clapp CE, Pierre WH, Morachan YB (1972) Effects of increasing amounts of organic residues on continuous corn. II. Organic carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. Agron J 64:204–208CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Lehman RM, Ducey TF, Jin VL, Acosta-Martinez V, Ahlschwede CM, Jeske ES et al. (2014) Soil microbial community response to corn stover harvesting under rain-fed, no-till conditions BioEnergy Res this issueGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Liang Y, Gollany HT, Rickman RW, Albrecht SL, Follett RF, Wilhelm WW et al (2009) Simulating soil organic matter with CQESTR (v. 2.0): model description and validation against long-term experiments across North America. Ecol Model 220:568–581CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Liebig M, Varvel G, Honeycutt W (2010) Chapter 1. Guidelines for site description and soil sampling, processing, analysis, and archiving. In: Follett R (ed) GRACEnet Sampling Protocols. Washington, DC, USDA-Agricultural Research Service, pp 1–5Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Muth DJ Jr, Bryden KM (2013) An integrated model for assessment of sustainable agricultural residue removal limits for bioenergy systems. Environ Model Softw 39:50–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Muth DJ Jr, Bryden KM, Nelson RG (2013) Sustainable agricultural residue removal for bioenergy: a spatially comprehensive US national assessment. Appl Energy 102:403–417CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Muth DJ Jr, McCorkle DS, Koch JB, Bryden KM (2012) Modeling sustainable agricultural residue removal at the subfield scale. Agron J 104:970–981CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    Nelson RG (2002) Resource assessment and removal analysis for corn stover and wheat straw in the Eastern and Midwestern United States—rainfall and wind-induced soil erosion methodology. Biomass Bioenerg 22:349–363CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Novak JM, Busscher WJ, Watts DW, Laird DA, Ahmedna MA, Niandou MAS (2010) Short-term CO2 mineralization after additions of biochar and switchgrass to a Typic Kandiudult. Geoderma 154:281–288CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 31.
    Novak JM, Frederick JR, Bauer PJ, Watts DW (2009) Rebuilding organic carbon contents in Coastal Plain soils using conservation tillage systems. Soil Sci Soc Am J 73:622–629CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Novak JM, Moorman TB, Cambardella CA (1997) Atrazine sorption at the field scale in relation to soils and landscape position. J Environ Qual 26:1271–1277CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    Paul EA (1992) Organic matter, decomposition. In: Lederburg J, Bloom BR (eds) Encyclopedia of Microbiology. Academic Press, San Diego, pp 289–304Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Perlack RD, Wright LL, Turhollow A, Graham RL, Stokes B, Erbach DC (2005) Biomass as feedstock for a bioenergy and bioproducts Industry: the technical feasibility of a billion-ton annual supply. US Department of Energy and US Department of Agriculture. Available via Accessed 28 Aug 2013
  35. 35.
    Plante AF, Conant RT, Stewart CE, Paustian K, Six J (2006) Impact of soil texture on the distribution of soil organic matter in physical and chemical fractions. Soil Sci Soc Am J 70:287–296CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 36.
    Rickman RW, Douglas CL, Albrecht SL, Bundy LG, Berc JL (2001) CQESTR: a model to estimate carbon sequestration in agricultural soils. J Soil Water Conserv 56:237–242Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    SAS Institute (2009) SAS system for Windows, Release 9.2. SAS Inst., Cary, NCGoogle Scholar
  38. 38.
    Soil Survey Staff (2008) Official soil series descriptions USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service. Available via Accessed 11 Dec 2013
  39. 39.
    Staricka J, Allmaras RR, Nelson WW (1991) Spatial variation of crop residue incorporation by tillage. Soil Sci Soc Am J 55:1668–1674CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 40.
    Stetson SJ, Osborne SL, Schumacher TE, Eynard A, Chilom G, Rice J et al (2012) Corn residue removal impact on topsoil organic carbon in a corn-soybean rotation. Soil Sci Soc Am J 76:1399–1406CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    Stewart CE, Paustian K, Conant RT, Plante AF, Six J (2007) Soil carbon saturation: concept, evidence and evaluation. Biogeochemistry 86:19–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 42.
    Tan Z, Liu S, Bliss N, Tieszen LL (2012) Current and potential sustainable corn stover feedstock for biofuel production in the United States. Biomass Bioenerg 47:372–386CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. 43.
    US DOE (2011) U.S. billion-ton update: biomass supply for a bioenergy and bioproducts industry. Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Available via Accessed 11 Dec 2013
  44. 44.
    USDA-NRCS (2006) Interpreting the soil conditioning index: a tool for measuring soil organic matter trends. Technical Note No. 16. Soil Quality Institute, USDA–NRCS. Available via Accessed 11 Dec 2013
  45. 45.
    USDA-Agricultural Research Service (2010) Impact of residue removal for biofuel production on soil: Renewable Energy Assessment Project (REAP). USDA-ARS. Available via Accessed 11 Dec 2013
  46. 46.
    Wilhelm WW, Hess JR, Karlen DL, Johnson JMF, Muth DJ Jr, Baker JM et al (2010) Review: balancing limiting factors and economic drivers for sustainable Midwestern US agricultural residue feedstock supplies. Ind Biotechnol 6:271–287CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 47.
    Wilhelm WW, Johnson JMF, Karlen DL, Lightle DT (2007) Corn stover to sustain soil organic carbon further constrains biomass supply. Agron J 99:1665–1667CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York (outside the USA) 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jane M. F. Johnson
    • 1
    Email author
  • Jeff M. Novak
    • 2
  • Gary E. Varvel
    • 3
  • Diane E. Stott
    • 4
  • Shannon L. Osborne
    • 5
  • Douglas L. Karlen
    • 6
  • John A. Lamb
    • 7
  • John Baker
    • 8
  • Paul R. Adler
    • 9
  1. 1.North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory, USDA Agricultural Research ServiceMorrisUSA
  2. 2.Coastal Plains Soil, Water, and Plant Research Center, USDA Agricultural Research ServiceFlorenceUSA
  3. 3.Agroecosystems Management Research Unit, USDA-Agricultural Research ServiceLincolnUSA
  4. 4.National Soil Erosion Research Laboratory, USDA-Agricultural Research ServiceWest LafayetteUSA
  5. 5.North Central Agricultural Research Laboratory, USDA-Agricultural Research ServiceBrookingsUSA
  6. 6.National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, USDA-Agricultural Research ServiceAmesUSA
  7. 7.Department of Soil, Water and ClimateUniversity of MinnesotaSt. PaulUSA
  8. 8.Soil and Water Management Research Unit, USDA-Agricultural Research ServiceUniversity of MinnesotaSt. PaulUSA
  9. 9.Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit, USDA-Agricultural Research ServiceUniversity ParkUSA

Personalised recommendations