Study: Experience matters when growing switchgrass

By Timothy Charles Holmseth
Tests conducted over a period of five years in three Midwestern states have shown that switchgrass could be a contender in the cellulosic ethanol fuel market.

Richard Perrin, professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, helped facilitate the tests along with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. He said two of the participating farmers were experienced in raising switchgrass, and it definitely showed in results. "Those two farmers produced at about two-thirds the cost of the average of the group," he said.

The test, the first of its kind, determined that the average cost to grow switchgrass was around $60 per ton. However, the two farmers who had previous experience in growing switchgrass were able to produce it for $39 per ton.

Perrin said diligence and preparation of the field appeared to be significant factors in obtaining good results. "One of these guys made a lot more trips across the field getting ready to plant, even more than we had recommended," he said.

Favorable weather, a good emergence of the seed and the proper use of herbicide also contributed to the more successful fields. Some of the farmers didn't experience favorable weather, which may have hindered their results to some degree, Perrin noted. "Some didn't have enough [switchgrass] to even bother harvesting that first year," he said. There were also instances where the farmers didn't follow instructions, which may have impacted the results in a negative way.

Perrin said there are currently no ethanol plants in the central United States purchasing switchgrass if farmers were to produce it. He said there is a future for switchgrass as a viable source of cellulosic ethanol, but he believes much depends on U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman as he enforces the new federal mandates in the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007, which requires that 1 MMgy of cellulosic biofuel be consumed by 2013.