Degree Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Science




Sustainable Agriculture

First Advisor

Fernando E. Miguez


It has been suggested that strategic incorporation of perennial vegetation into agricultural landscapes could provide ecosystem services while maintaining agricultural productivity. To evaluate potential use of prairie as a Midwestern cellulosic feedstock, we investigated theoretical cellulosic fuel yields, as well as soil-surface carbon dioxide emissions of prairie-based biofuel systems as compared to maize-based systems on fertile soils in Boone County, IA, USA. Investigated systems were: a maize-soybean rotation grown for grain only, continuous maize grown for grain and stover both with and without a winter rye cover crop, and a 31-species reconstructed prairie grown with and without spring nitrogen fertilization for fall-harvested biomass. From 2009-2013, the highest producing system was N-fertilized prairie, averaging 10.4 Mg ha-1 yr-1 above-ground biomass with average harvest removals of 7.8 Mg ha-1 yr-1. The unfertilized prairie produced 7.4 Mg ha-1 yr-1, averaging harvests of 5.3 Mg ha-1 yr-1. Lowest cellulosic biomass harvests were realized from continuous maize systems, averaging 3.5 Mg ha-1 yr-1 when grown with, and 3.7 Mg ha-1 yr-1 when grown without a winter rye cover crop, respectively. Un-fertilized prairie biomass and maize stover had equivalent dietary conversion ratios at 330 g ethanol kg-1 dry biomass, but N-fertilized prairie was lower at 315. Over four years prairie systems averaged 1287 L cellulosic ethanol ha-1 yr-1 more than maize systems, with fertilization increasing prairie ethanol production by 865 L ha-1 yr-1. Harvested biomass accounted for >90% of ethanol yield variation. A major hurdle in carbon cycling studies is the separation of the soil-surface CO2 flux into its respective components. From 2012-2013 we used a shading method to separate soil-surface CO2 resulting from oxidation of soil organic matter and CO2 derived from live-root activity in three systems: unfertilized prairie, N-fertilized prairie, and continuous maize. Contrary to our hypothesis, total growing-season root CO2 flux was not proportional to end-of-season root biomass of cropping systems; unfertilized prairie contained nearly twice the root biomass of N-fertilized prairie, but the two systems' total root CO2 fluxes were not significantly different in either year. We found that the total growing-season flux of both root- and organic matter-derived CO2 was higher in the prairie systems compared to the maize system. However, on a percentage basis, the prairies' soil-surface CO2 flux from May-September averaged 29% root-derived while from mid-June through September the maize averaged 22% root-derived. The percentage of the total CO2 flux that was root-derived in a given system varied from year to year, indicating there is no set relationship for a given cropping system.


Copyright Owner

Virginia Nichols



File Format


File Size

74 pages