Bioenergy and Diversity from Sustainable Systems and Crops

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2008: $138,638.35
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Sarah Carlson
Practical Farmers of Iowa
Dr. Rick Exner
Practical Farmers of iowa

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, oats, soybeans


  • Crop Production: crop rotation, continuous cropping, nutrient cycling, application rate management
  • Education and Training: demonstration, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, youth education
  • Energy: bioenergy and biofuels, energy conservation/efficiency, energy use, wind power
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, budgets/cost and returns
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Soil Management: green manures, organic matter, nutrient mineralization, soil microbiology, soil chemistry, soil quality/health


    This project has now completed the data collection, analysis and outreach activities to bring sustainable agriculture further into the public discussion of energy options by demonstrating a basic, practical cropping system that uses a fraction of the energy inputs as continuous corn and provides a net energy output that can be essentially the same while also supporting a diversity of farm enterprises.


    The price of energy remains as a major expense for a farming operation and the cost of energy continues to be unpredictable. This project compared two practical Midwest cropping systems to explore the difference between energy use to grow and harvest crops, as well as to process those crops into biofuels and the resulting net biofuel energy and fossil energy ratio. Cropping systems with three or more crops use a fraction of the energy inputs as compared to continuous corn and provide a diversity of farm enterprises. Klepper et al. (1977) paired 14 Midwest organic farms with comparable farms not using organic practices, finding that the organic farms produced corn for roughly 36 percent the energy inputs per bushel used on the conventional farms. As noted, nitrogen fertilizer is the greatest single energy input in corn production. In the Klepper study, all farms whether organic or conventional kept livestock and applied manure. Thirty years later, these two types of farming have diverged. Many conventional row crop operations do not have access to manure, and up until the fall of 2012 N fertilizer rates have risen. The energy footprint of agriculture is an issue that SARE has always kept alive through research and demonstration projects. Practical Farmers of Iowa field days and workshops in 1992-1993 (LNC92-044) showed that farmer cooperators saved the energy equivalent of 12 gallons of diesel per acre by reducing nitrogen fertilizer an average of 50 lbs per acre. On-farm energy conservation and production continues to be a top priority for PFI members.

    Project objectives:

    Short-term Outcomes: PFI’s media outreach, farmer field days, Dordt College field days and workshops and Annual Conference sessions has introduced the idea of energy savings through various practical on-farm methods to farmers, future farmers, and others including students. These stakeholders now are familiar with techniques and technologies that farmers and communities can use now and near-term to increase energy independence. Topics have included biodiesel, ethanol from sorghum, and switchgrass for municipal power, small wind chargers, and energy extraction technologies nearing the market. Our educational opportunities mentioned above have also aimed at helping them understand the connection between sustainable energy and sustainable agriculture so they may enter farming and other agriculture careers knowing how sustainable systems can support both farmers and global energy and environmental priorities.

    Intermediate-term Outcomes: Farmers and others make informed choices that sustain the environment and are profitable in light of energy costs and their effects on agriculture commodity prices. As PFI's Energy program continues to develop from the opportunities available through this grant we have had an explosion of cooperators interested in a couple different types of on-farm energy projects. This project helped launch our Energy program. One group of farmers started with baseline data to measure and to understand how much current energy their farm is using. After baseline data was obtained, a second group has implemented changes in the farming practices to conserve energy. A third group is looking at energy generation on farm to reduce dependence on off-farm energy inputs. In addition PFI with Dordt College established side-by-side farming systems to compare the energy used and produced in the form of bio-fuels from two different farming systems. Several outreach activities have been accomplished from this study.

    At the end of 2009 PFI changed one of the cooperators and began working with Dr. Craig Chase, a Farm and Ag Management Field Specialist at Iowa State University Extension to analyze the data from the ISU Marsden Farm Cropping Systems Study. Dr. Chase assessed labor requirements, input costs, and net returns for the conventional and diversified, low-external-input rotation systems used in the experiment. Data collected from the experiment plots concerning field operations, inputs, and yields, in combination with market prices and agricultural engineering and agricultural economics databases were used to complete the objective. Dr. Chase also developed energy budgets to assess the contrasting cropping systems using the established databases. To determine the effects of government subsidies, carbon payments, and “green payment” policies on economic performance of the different cropping systems, a profitability assessment with and without government program payments was conducted. Both existing subsidy programs and possible future programs (i.e., the results of new federal farm and climate legislation) were considered. The individual crop enterprise budgets developed has been adjusted to include or exclude government payments, aggregated into crop rotations, and compared. In addition, PFI staff devoted significant time to developing print publications, web updates, media placement and editorials on bioenergy and the need for diversity in cropping systems. That media outreach has focused on farmers as spokespeople in highlighting analyses farmers have done and changes they have made in their operations based on the research conducted in this grant.

    Long-term Outcomes: The public and public policy view a sustainable energy future and sustainable agriculture as inseparable (See PFI's Research Report titled "Farm Energy Production and Use between Two Iowa Cropping Systems," attached under “Publications/Outreach”).

    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.