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Evaluating the potential use of winter cover crops in corn-soybean systems for sustainable co-production of food and fuel

Baker, John M., Griffis, Timothy J.
Agricultural and forest meteorology 2009 v.149 no.12 pp. 2120-2132
cover crops, rye, Secale cereale, biofuels, biomass, food production, fuel production, crop production, corn, soybeans, cropping systems, Zea mays, Glycine max, planting date, water use, water use efficiency, soil water content, simulation models, heat sums, geographical variation, photosynthetically active radiation, equations, winter, climate change, renewable energy sources, harvest date, primary productivity, agricultural land, dry matter accumulation, meteorological data, crop management, Corn Belt region, Midwestern United States
Climate change and economic concerns have motivated intense interest in the development of renewable energy sources, including fuels derived from plant biomass. However, the specter of massive biofuel production has raised other worries, specifically that by displacing food production it will lead to higher food prices, increased incidence of famine, and acceleration of undesirable land use change. One proposed solution is to increase the annual net primary productivity of the existing agricultural land base, so that it can sustainably produce both food and biofuel feedstocks. This might be possible in corn and soybean production regions through the use of winter cover crops, but the biophysical feasibility of this has not been systematically explored. We developed a model for this purpose that simulates the potential biomass production and water use of winter rye in continuous corn and corn-soybean rotations. The input data requirements represent an attempt to balance the demands of a physically and physiologically defensible simulation with the need for broad applicability in space and time. The necessary meteorological data are obtainable from standard agricultural weather stations, and the required management data are simply planting dates and harvest dates for corn and soybeans. Physiological parameters for rye were taken from the literature, supplemented by experimental data specifically collected for this project. The model was run for a number of growing seasons for 8 locations across the Midwestern USA. Results indicate potential rye biomass production of 1-8Mgha⁻¹, with the lowest yields at the more northern sites, where both PAR and degree-days are limited in the interval between fall corn harvest and spring corn or soybean planting. At all sites rye yields are substantially greater when the following crop is soybean rather than corn, since soybean is planted later. Not surprisingly, soil moisture depletion is most likely in years and sites where rye biomass production is greatest. Consistent production of both food and biomass from corn/winter rye/soybean systems will probably require irrigation in many areas and additional N fertilizer, creating possible environmental concerns. Rye growth limitations in the northern portion of the corn belt may be partially mitigated with aerial seeding of rye into standing corn.