Corn tassels and leaves are backlit by the sun as the plants grow in a farm field at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's West Madison Agricultural Research Station during summer on July 13, 2012. UW-Madison researchers in the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) are studying the genetic traits of the corn plant and potential for using corn stover -- the residual stalk, leaf, husk and cob remaining in the field following the harvest of cereal grain -- for potential use as biomass fuel. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

In Wisconsin, as in many other parts of the Midwest, we grow a lot of corn – four million acres of it, in fact. That’s four million acres of corn generating $2 billion in economic benefits to the state. Since roughly a quarter of those corn crops are currently used for ethanol production, some of that Wisconsin corn is also finding its way into our gas tanks.

“Corn has incredible benefits for biofuel production,” says Claudio Gratton, professor of entomology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “You get a ton of biomass very quickly, it has a market, and we know how to harvest it. But there are costs associated with it, too, environmental costs.”

Corn is an annual crop that requires a lot of fertilizer to thrive. Since corn doesn’t fix roots in the soil year round, corn crops also increase soil erosion and cause runoff pollution. In Wisconsin and elsewhere, when rainfall or snowmelt carry topsoil downstream, phosphorus and nitrogen-rich manure flows into our waterways, endangering water quality and sometimes leading to poisonous blooms of blue-green algae.

It’s a problem without an easy solution. If farmers were simply to spread less fertilizer, they might see decreases in crop yield and profit. Introducing new or different crops is also not a simple fix, as many farmers rely on well-established corn and soybean markets with crop insurance for income.

An interactive graphic allows you to progress through the different stages of the growing season to track how carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus flow through each system. Visit the article on the Wisconsin Energy Institute website to learn more about why each chemical flux occurs.

Randy Jackson, a UW-Madison professor of agronomy who holds meetings with farmers and decision-makers as part of his research on sustainable agricultural systems, says current policies and prevailing market forces keep a tight hold on our current cropping landscape.

“To get started [in farming], you’re going to need a loan, and the bank is not likely to give you a loan unless you have a business plan based on corn and soybeans,” says Jackson. He also points out that some practices that exacerbate runoff pollution, such as planting row crops next to streams, are also the result of economic calculations. “It allows farmers to keep that land zoned agriculture, which means lower taxes.”

But what’s missing from our current approach to land management, Jackson argues, is a means of accounting for the social and environmental costs and benefits of various cropping systems. Jackson, Gratton, and other UW–Madison scientists are looking to measure those costs while exploring new and collaborative ways of making our cropping systems serve farmers as well as the people, plants, and animals that depend on healthy ecosystems.

To continue reading and explore the benefits of bioenergy crops, visit the Wisconsin Energy Institute website.