Irrigated corn achieves high yields
"In our study, each field has its own database. We could go back to the same field in 10 years and see how things have changed," Cassman added.
It's important to assess energy efficiency and GHG emissions of cropping systems on a yield basis, not a land-area basis, Grassini said.
To illustrate that point, Grassini said it would be possible to achieve a large decrease in GHG emissions in the three Nebraska counties included in this study by converting irrigated cropland into dryland agriculture, but to make up for the estimated 50 percent decrease in grain yield would require 308,000 additional acres of rainfed corn production in Nebraska.
"Thus it is penny-wise and pound foolish to convert irrigated agriculture back to dryland production for the sake of reducing greenhouse gas emissions," Grassini added.
"At some point, in a world with limited resources and confronted with emerging challenges such as climate change and limited supplies of fresh water, understanding how all of the world's agriculture performs in terms of net energy yield, greenhouse gas emissions intensity and water and nitrogen productivity is going to be important," Cassman said. "This paper sets standards on how you can do that using real-world farm data."
"The story of irrigated corn in Nebraska can be taken as a benchmark for other current and future irrigated cropping systems because it shows that achieving high yields, high energy efficiency, and low global warming potential are not mutually exclusive goals in real-world commercial farming," Grassini said.
The findings do not mean irrigated corn systems can't be made even more energy efficient, emphasized Cassman. Continued progress can come with use of best management practices, including rotation of corn with soybeans rather than continuous corn, replacement of surface irrigation with pivot irrigation systems, use of conservation tillage practices rather than conventional disc-plowing, and fine-tuning applications of nitrogen fertilizer and irrigation water. UNL scientists now are conducting similar research on soybean production in Nebraska, Cassman said.
The article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is titled "High-yield maize with large net energy yield and small global warming intensity."
This Agricultural Research Division research is funded by the Water, Energy and Agriculture Initiative of the Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences Research (http://ncesr.unl.edu).
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