Energy Systems for Crop Production

The two largest contributors to the energy footprint of conventional crop production are generally considered to be diesel fuel used in tractor operations and the energy consumed in the production of nitrogen fertilizer. The West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) is producing nitrogen fertilizer using wind energy to drive the process. 

Energy audits also are being conducted which primarily consist of measuring fuel consumed in tractors, grain trucks and other vehicles.

Read more about the WCROC's efforts to improve crop production energy systems.

Organic Crop Production

Organic crop production varies significantly from conventional crop production. The two most significant differences are: No synthetic nitrogen fertilizer can be used, and increased tillage is required to control weeds. Since weed control is currently energy intensive due to the added diesel-fuel requirements of increased tillage, an energy-optimized organic crop production system is being evaluated and compared to a traditional organic crop production system. The optimized organic cropping system utilizes a weed management system with significantly reduced tillage.

The optimized system combines no-tillage planting with winter soil cover while requiring less intensive tillage operations. The optimized system is expected to reduce energy and tillage for weed control through plant competition and forage harvest sequencing.

Greening of Ag: Improving Energy Use

At the WCROC, nearly 50% of our crop acres are on certified organic land, largely for the purpose of supplying feed to our organic dairy herd. For our Greening of Ag Initiative, we are evaluating fuel requirements for three cropping systems: two organic systems (a less aggressive/reduced tillage optimized organic system, and a traditional organic system which is more tillage aggressive) and one conventional system.  

This allows us the unique opportunity to compare diesel fuel consumption for both organic and conventional cropping systems (diesel fuel is the only fuel required by equipment). Our process includes:

  1. Auditing energy consumed in conventional and organic production systems at the WCROC.
  2. Production of nitrogen fertilizer from renewable resources.
  3. Life cycle assessment - check out our early findings.

Diesel fuel consumption was based on recording acres covered and the amount of fuel used. In 2014, both organic systems used 4.76 gal/acre more fuel than the conventional system. In 2015, both organic systems used 9.12 gallons per acre versus 5.71 gallons per acre for the conventional system.  

While an emphasis was placed on fuel use per acre, we also had to consider yield in our assessment. In the 2015 growing season, the two organic systems used .056 gallons diesel fuel per bushel produced. The conventional system used .035 gallons diesel per bushel.