Managing Crop Residues: Balancing Soil Quality and Farm Profitability

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2005: $9,970.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Grant Recipient: Michigan State University
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Phil Robertson
Michigan State University/ Kellogg Biological Station

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, soybeans


  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: extension, focus group
  • Natural Resources/Environment: soil stabilization
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil analysis, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    The role of sustainable agriculture has expanded in recent decades from a traditional focus on food and fiber production to also include ecosystem management responsibilities. Farmers may now have an opportunity to be compensated for providing a wide array of ecosystem services, such as sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide into soil organic matter. Recent research indicates that maintaining maximum surface residue through cropping system practices is imperative for carbon sequestration in soils. Even though increasing surface residue can improve soil quality and reduce soil erosion, it can conversely, slow spring soil warm-up thus delay planting and immobilize plant available nitrogen. These are complex tradeoffs of which many North Central Region row-crop farmers struggle to evaluate. I will develop a two-part extension bulletin to address the need to optimize soil quality and farm profitability through crop residue management. The first section will provide a residue management guide for optimal soil quality updated to include the latest research on managing for carbon sequestration. The second part will describe how two case-study farms balance management strategies through cost-benefit analyses for optimal soil quality and farm profitability. Case-study farms will be from southwest Michigan’s corn-soybean-wheat growing region and from east-central Michigan’s sugarbeet growing region. Two focus groups (each composed of four farmers) and MSU Extension personnel will help steer the content of the bulletin. In addition, I will present this material at a minimum of five winter producer meetings throughout Michigan. My goal is to help farmers incorporate carbon sequestration into their management decisions. Long-term influence of this work will be improved residue management systems that allow producers to farm more environmentally and economically sustainable.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Short-term: Initially our project will engage a small set of farmers (two sets of four) - the focus groups – and two extension educators, two extension faculty, and myself in the development of an updated crop residue management bulletin that incorporates the latest research findings on management strategies to optimize carbon sequestration, soil quality, and crop yields.

    This user-friendly bulletin will guide farmers in a cost-benefit analysis of maintaining residue cover on their crop fields. Given that the most effective spread of agronomic information is from one farmer to another farmer, we feel that the inclusion of the details on how two case-studies farms balance these costs and benefits is imperative for maximum credibility among the farm communities. The extension bulletin will be a part of the New Ag Network series that is distributed as a traditional print based Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) Bulletin as well as web based media. The outreach presentations we propose will build upon an Agroecology Extension Training Program that the extension collaborators have developed over the past three winters. We estimate 50 farmers to attend each of the five presentations.

    Intermediate-term: If our presentations and bulletin motivate farmers who manage 10% of the sugar beet (180,000 acres) and 10% of the corn and soybean (4,000,000 acres) ground in Michigan to examine the costs and benefits of residue management strategies on their farms that would be influencing 418,000 acres. We feel that this is a realistic and substantial impact.

    Additionally, the combination of literature review and conversations with the focus group farmers and farmers who attend the presentations will help direct future research initiatives into best management practices for cropping system sustainability.

    Long-term: The emergence of carbon trading markets and expected tax incentives for soil carbon sequestration will likely provide a direct financial incentive for storing soil carbon in cropping systems through the use of reside management. As this incentive is factored into the benefit side of the economics of residue management it is likely to motivate more farmers to adopt practices that increase residue cover. Our proposed bulletin will give farmers the best available cost-benefit information and an analysis method to evaluate these important management decisions. Adoption of cropping system practices that increase residue cover will strongly influence farm sustainability and environmental quality. Although the cost-benefit data provided in this bulletin will be specific for southern and central Michigan, the general approach laid out in the bulletin will be useful for many farmers in the Northern Central Region.

    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.