Impact of Biomass Removal for Bioenergy on Soil and Water Quality

Final Report for ENC07-094

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2007: $50,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Mahdi Al-Kaisi
Iowa State University
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Project Information


An educational training program on residue management was conducted through a series of workshops and field training sessions across Iowa during 2009. A total of five workshops, field training sessions, and two Webinars were held in the summer of 2009. During these workshops, presentations followed by group discussions were conducted. An evaluation of the program activities showed that over 90% of the participants found the subject matter of the training to be relevant to their work. During the 2009 training project, over 150 agricultural professionals received training. In the 2009 survey and evaluation, trainees estimated this training will affect over 4,000 individuals and 500,000 acres across Iowa. The survey results also showed that the level of understanding the basic role of residue in improving soil and water quality improved from 37% before the training to 86% after the training was completed.

Project Objectives:

Project Objectives/Performance Targets:
The expected short, intermediate, and long-term outcomes of this training program will reflect the main objectives; these outcomes will be documented through qualitative and quantitative means.

Short-term outcomes:
•Increase the understanding of residue effects on soil and water quality by using a rainfall simulator.
•Increase awareness of environmental impacts for the bio-economy associated with residue removal and other residue uses such as animal feeding.
•Improve understanding of converting CRP land to row crops such as corn-soybean or continuous corn.
•Increase the level of understanding of residue management and residue’s role in improving soil and water quality.

Intermediate outcomes:
•Increase residue management practice adoption by farmers to maintain residue cover as recommended by conservation plans to protect soil and water quality.
•Incorporate residue management practices by NRCS staff and extension educators into their educational and outreach activities, to continue educating producers on proper residue management practices.
•Produce training materials and guidelines that can be utilized by agriculture professionals and shared with other North Central states’ Professional Development Program coordinators.
•Increase public awareness about the importance of crop residue and its role in protecting our soil resources.

Long-term Outcomes:
•Increase the adoption of best management practices in residue removal.
•Increase the adoption of conservation practices in corn production.
•Increase the adoption of residue management technology (e.g., residue cleaners, use of no-till in continuous corn production).
•Improve public understanding of crop residue value for improving soil and water quality.


The rapid increase in ethanol production from corn grain in Iowa has caused producers to transition their operations to produce more corn to take advantage of increased demand and price. Continuous corn production and the conversion of fallow and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres are two ways farmers are increasing corn production. The use of corn residues for producing cellulosic ethanol is also being evaluated in Iowa, especially with development of a new lignocellulosic ethanol biomass plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa.

These trends present significant challenges to increase awareness and provide needed training to extension educators and agency staff to address the potential negative environmental impact of intense corn monoculture and corn residue use for ethanol production. Residue management, seed placement, nitrogen (N) application, and equipment considerations are a few of the challenges that farmers will need to consider when transitioning to continuous corn. Post-harvest residues provide a critical source of soil carbon, protect the soil surface against water and wind erosion, and help improve soil quality. There is a tremendous need for educational programs targeted to extension educators, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff, and agriculture professionals to assist farmers in implementing management practices that protect the soil and water quality while making these potentially profitable transitions in their operations.

All field training and workshops will be coordinated with the State Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator’s office and program. This Professional Development Program (PDP) project will be part of the Iowa Plan of Work (POW) for extension educators around the state. This mechanism will ensure all extension educators will be participating in the training. Also, there is a significant need by other agencies such as NRCS, Farm Service Agency (FSA), Soil Conservation Districts (SCD), and crop consultants for this training to satisfy their clients’ needs. Iowa State University Extension has well-developed education delivery systems such as the Crop Advantage Series around the state. These workshops are organized by Extension Area Agronomists to provide training to area agriculture professionals, including farmers. These training mechanisms are also utilized by significant numbers of agriculture professionals from the neighboring Midwest states as well.


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Education & Outreach Initiatives



The training program will include the following training activities to achieve the short, intermediate, and long-terms outcomes. The training activities are not necessarily limited to those listed below and may include other informal, one-on-one, and group training. The main objective of the training forums is to provide basic information and hands-on training on residue management practices to increase awareness, improve understanding, and develop best management practices for residue removal.

a. Training Workshops:
The state will be divided into 5 regions according to landscape and soil types. Training workshops for extension educators, NRCS staff, and other agriculture professionals will be conducted in each of the five regions within the state on the following:
•Soil erosion training will be conducted to instruct conservation planners, extension specialists, and agriculture professionals on the use of RUSLE2 with different residue removal scenarios.
•Soil Conditioning Index will be used to demonstrate the impact of residue removal on soil quality. This training will include Extension field agronomists, NRCS Staff, and agriculture professionals.
•Conservation practices will be promoted through PowerPoint presentations on the proper use of filter strips, waterways, riparian buffers, and other structural conservation practices.
•Roundtable discussions: informal group discussions will be held following the formal training to reflect on the training sessions and obtain feedback in order to evaluate the impact of the training sessions.

b. Extension and Resource Materials:
PowerPoint presentations, resource materials, and extension bulletins will be developed and posted on the Iowa State University extension website. These materials will be made available and used by extension educators, NRCS staff, and other professionals in follow-up educational programs throughout the state. Primarily, these materials will be made available through the soil management and conservation website, which currently contains a significant number of educational materials, extension, and refereed journal publications.

c. Hands-on Field Training:
Hands-on field training sessions will be conducted throughout the state. The state will be divided into 5 regions according to landscape and soil types. Within each region one central location (farmer field) will be selected as the site to conduct hands-on field training targeting key extension educators, NRCS staff, and other agriculture professionals. Iowa State University faculty and NRCS specialists will be involved in the training sessions on the following:
•Soil quality assessment using a soil quality kit
•Measurement of residue levels after various harvest scenarios
•Demonstration of soil erosion with different residue levels using a rainfall simulator

Outreach and Publications

The following web site will host publication and education materials utilized in the training:

Outcomes and impacts:

This project was designed to train the trainer on the production and environmental consequences of residue removal for bioenergy or other uses. The technical audience involved in this training works closely with farmers and the ethanol industry. A follow-up survey/evaluation was filled out by all participants to assess the effectiveness of the training and change in trainees’ knowledge base before and after the workshops and training sessions. The results of the 2009 survey showed that 90% of the participants (trainees) found the subject matter of the training relevant to their work. The survey results show that the training met the expectations of 92% of the participants. Ninety-three percent of respondents rated the relevance of the presenters’ content to be good or excellent. We handed out a large amount of materials and information resources to the participants, and 92% of participants rated the effectiveness of these handouts to be good or excellent.

Survey Participants’ Comments on the Training Program:

Below are some of the comments received from trainees on the evaluation forms after the conclusion of the training workshops:

“Just the right balance between theory and a real farming situation.”
“Improved understanding of variables affecting residue and cover crop management.”
“Excellent discussions. Valid topics.”
“Very informative – lots of good info – very satisfied.”
“It would be beneficial to also include the soil quality benefits especially from residue management and cover crops.”
“It was a very excellent training.”
“Items discussed were thoroughly covered and explained.”
“I’m sure publications will have additional info – the presenters were good – liked the hands on with the implements – all very informative.”
“Residue coverage having positive impact on yield, better understanding on the strip till equipment and what it does or affects.”
“Strip tillage implement presentation was especially beneficial.”
“I learned information from every topic covered.”
“This was a very worthwhile, especially for our conservation planning in regards to applying our national programs.”
“Confirmed what I experienced from this spring’s planting - cool but not wet.”
“Matched well – but maybe too much cover crop time.”
“Some was a little difficult to absorb.”
“Good diversity of topics and presenters.”
“Good cover crop information”
“Producer panel always good – different management techniques.”
“Research on residue effects was good. Carbon credits was helpful.”
“The programs exceeded my expectations. The thorough discussions and open forums were very informative.”
“Gave me new ideas on how to get started no-tilling.”
“I like the information on cover crops and look forward to more research results.”
“Don’t bother with all the handouts.”
“Cover crop has more advantages than controlling soil erosion.”
“Excellent info, best soil and water presentation I have been to.”
“By providing economic inputs to the soil erosion / soil organic matter loss equation, I can take this info to farmers in my watershed.”
“Covered topics that are both timely and relevant.”
“Good basic knowledge, with some higher level info that will be useful for passing on.”
“Group discussion and question time were very valuable.”
“I really appreciate the discussion and cooperation between ISU Extension.”
“Bulk Density Testing was interesting. Need to have those on display to show farmers.”

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

To achieve the above stated objectives and particularly the short-term ones, the training program focused on providing residue management technical training to agricultural professionals from different agencies, extension personnel, and agriculture industry. Five residue training workshops, field training sessions, roundtables, and one webinar format were conducted in 2009.

In 2009, five training workshops and one webinar were conducted across Iowa, with topics developed based on the discussion and survey outcomes from 2008. Over 150 individuals participated, representing Iowa State University Extension staff, NRCS technical staff and conservationists, crop consultants, agribusiness agronomists, seed and fertilizer dealers, producers, and other agricultural professionals. Most of these professionals obtained Certified Crop Adviser credits through these training workshops. The program content was based mostly on the outcomes of the roundtable discussions from the first year of the project. During these workshops the following was presented:

1.Presentations on: The Effect of Residue Management on Soil and Water Quality
2.Presentations on: Implement Adjustment for Better Residue Management
3.Presentations on: Cover Crops, Erosion, and Nitrate Leaching
4.Presentations on: The Value of Soil and Crop Residue
5.Group discussions and question/answer sessions
6.End of workshop evaluation by attendees for feedback and ideas for future programming

Group Discussion:
Some highlights of the issues discussed in the group discussions in 2009:
•Economics are the most convincing argument to convince farmers to adopt conservation practices.
•There need to be incentives for farmers to adopt cover crops and conservation systems.
•No-till should be a priority, but producers need to be convinced and there is a learning curve to successfully implement the practice.
•Cover crops and residue management are important to protect soil resources when residue is removed for biofuel production.
•Adoption of conservation practices varies by region of the state.
•Some no-till farmers feel they have too much residue accumulated over multiple years that becomes a problem for equipment and early plant growth.
•There could be greater interest for aerial seeding cover crops into a standing crop, eliminating the need for an additional operation during the busy time in late fall.


Potential Contributions

The change in participants’ knowledge base before and after training workshops and training sessions was evaluated. Participants rated their knowledge in the specific areas of the presentations given before and after the workshop sessions. The responses of good to excellent improved from 37% before to 86% after the sessions in the various areas of training and topics presented in these workshops and training sessions.

Based on the responses of the participants to other survey questions, the information and training presented in these workshops will be shared with over 4,000 individuals and will affect over 500,000 acres across Iowa, creating a potentially very large impact on the adoption of conservation practices in the state of Iowa.

Future Recommendations

There needs to be continuous effort on training agency personnel (i.e., NRCS), Extension Agronomists, and agriculture professionals regarding the impact of agriculture practices and the implementation of conservation systems on soil and water quality. Based on the interaction and training was conducted by this project, some training is needed to bridge the gap in basic and applied knowledge. Generally, trainees have a good understanding of applied aspects of certain management, but what was lacking is the lack of understanding of the science behind them. Future training in areas of alternative management such as the use of cover crop, alternative tillage systems, such as strip-tillage can very helpful in promoting conservation systems.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.