Posted August 26, 2005, as reported by CropChoice:
For better or worse, land that was taken out
of production years ago as part of the Conservation Reserve
Program will be kicked back into production in the coming
How will landowners and farm managers make use of the
newly functional ground? If taken back to row crops,
the perennial soil quality benefits from CRP grasses
may be lost, proving the program's long term gains to
be marginal at best.
What if another crop existed, one that might partially
maintain the benefits of the Conservation Reserve Program,
while at the same time, allow landowners to advance
profits on the land that sat idle for years? Decades-worth
of study and research that continues today has been
brought to fruition in a crop that can successfully
be grown in the Midwest and has a well-defined market,
yet today lacks some of the legislative support necessary
to catapult it to the level of more conventional crops:
Switchgrass is a perennial warm-season grass native
to the rolling prairie hills of southern Iowa and northern
Missouri. Long a staple of the grasslands of the area,
switchgrass has in the last decade become recognized
as having a new function: Energy generation. Ground
switchgrass can be burned in a coal-firing energy facility,
displacing a small amount of coal used. While in its
infancy, this type of energy supplementation may become
another way the Midwestern U.S. can play a large role
in strengthening the nation's energy independence and
Yet the benefits of switchgrass as a primary crop don't
hedge completely toward the consumer, and John Sellers
Jr., knows this. Sellers has been growing switchgrass,
alongside other forage crops like Big Bluestem and Eastern
Gamma grass at his southern Iowa farm and ranch in Wayne
County, near Corydon, for almost 30 years. Currently
in his seventh year as a state soil conservation committee
member and Wayne County Soil and Water district commissioner
since 1973, Sellers operates 360 acres of his own grassland
in addition to managing 1,000 acres for others. To him,
switchgrass is a logical crop for his area.
"When looking for what will be the most efficient
and best adapted crop to grow in an area, look to what
Mother Nature had there to begin with," he says.
"In our case in the Midwest, it is tallgrass prairie
grasses of which switchgrass was one."
Sellers, also coordinator of the Leopold Center for
Sustainable Agriculture's Iowa Grassland Agriculture
Program, says he recognizes that conservation and farm
profitability must go hand-in-hand in order to be successful.
He started planting switchgrass not in search of the
next big energy source, but because of its practical
applications to his operation.
"Switchgrass is highly adaptive. You can grow
it from the Rocky Mountains of Canada all the way to
the Gulf of Mexico. It was promoted for its wildlife
benefits and all of that years ago. I started planting
it in 1980 and was just interested in it at first as
warm-season grazing and a wildlife habitat, and it kind
of went from there," Sellers says. "Then,
when switchgrass was recognized as having the best potential
for energy, the focus started to shift."
That focus today, at least in southern Iowa, has blossomed
into a new use for switchgrass that has fueled a whole
new industry's development. Today, a cooperative group
of farmers, Sellers among them, is growing switchgrass
for utilization to generate energy alongside coal in
the Ottumwa Generating Station in Chillicothe, just
over 50 miles east of Corydon. The growers comprise
the Chariton Valley Biomass Project, part of Chariton
Valley Resource Conservation and Development, a U.S.
Department of Agriculture-funded system for conservation
encompassing Lucas, Wayne, Appanoose and Monroe counties
in southern Iowa.
Burning switchgrass for energy
Today, more than 3,000 acres in southern Iowa is planted
to switchgrass. The U.S. Department of Energy is working
with the Chariton Valley group, providing periodic grant
funding for research and development to help determine
switchgrass' prospects for more widespread and regular
use as an energy crop.
Switchgrass, which is sold through power purchase agreements
directly to the energy plant, comprises 2.5 percent
of the total resource input at the Ottumwa energy facility.
When entering the plant, the grass is debaled and ground,
yielding finely chopped dry matter that is injected
into boilers much the same way powdered coal is injected
in conventional plants.
"It goes into a big blower and it's transported
pneumatically up into a boiler, then from its own nozzle,
blown into the firebox," Sellers says. "The
coal is going in on its own stream, and we're pouring
in through our own stream."
To date, Sellers says no decline in the plant's energy
efficiency has been observed with co-firing switchgrass
"We've had experts test every aspect of that facility's
operations, and that plant hasn't shown a difference
so far," he says. "We don't expect that plant
to even know it's there."
At the 700-megawatt energy plant, Sellers says 55,000
3- by 4- by 8-foot square bales must be produced to
consistently meet the input quota. Because of the costs
associated with growing switchgrass, combined with the
low cost of coal, it is a constant challenge to find
ways to bolster production efficiency to cost effectively
meet energy demands.
"Unfortunately, coal is dirt cheap, and it's going
to stay dirt cheap. A baler costs $75,000, and you don't
have an electric plant on every street corner. We have
to truck it 55 miles from here to the plant," Sellers
says. "We've pushed it and applied more nitrogen
early in the growing season just to see what the soil
is capable of. Four tons per acre is where it cash flows,
but we can raise as much as six tons/acre."
Utilizing switchgrass for energy has another avenue
for the future: Ethanol. With cellulose ethanol technology
on the verge of reaching the mainstream, switchgrass
could be an alternative to more conventional ethanol
production methods, according to Sellers.
"We've got the cellulose-to-ethanol technologies
in place now, so this is what you're going to start
seeing spring up if we have some policy that would help
a little bit," he says. "The corn people have
the policy to support them. They've worked super-hard
"We have seen a lot better net energy gain with
a bale of switchgrass than with a bushel of corn, when
making ethanol out of it."
Switchgrass as a crop requires atypical management.
For optimal output, it is harvested every other year,
rather than annually. Even though it is common in CRP
fields, switchgrass harvested for energy generation
must be a relative monoculture, meaning derived from
primarily a single seed type, rather than part of a
mixture of grasses. Once the grass reaches maturity
in harvest years, it is swathed and baled, much like
other forage crops. Sellers says the 3- by 4- by 8-foot
bales are used in the Chariton Valley project because
of ease of handling and storage. Bales are currently
stored in 13 buildings around the Rathbun Lake watershed
area that comprises the four counties of Wayne, Lucas,
Appanoose and Monroe. One building near the energy facility
houses 16,000 bales and is utilized in times when weather
prevents hay delivery from more outlying areas.
In terms of soil conservation and preservation, switchgrass
is unique in its benefits. Much of Sellers' ground is
highly erodible, yet switchgrass flourishes. This is
due in part to its "sod roots," which form
an interwoven layer of roots that don't penetrate extremely
deep in the soil, but form a layer of solely root tissue
just beneath the surface. This, in effect, stabilizes
ground that might be easily eroded if planted to row
crops. For this reason alone, Sellers says the value
of switchgrass should be clear.
"The fields have a soil quality that's just sky
high. We've got moderate to severely eroded soils from
years and years of row cropping, or too short of rotations
of full tillage. This is really helping this soil bring
itself back," he says. "We're spending millions
on soil conservation in this country so we can row crop
all the land when we could rotate in switchgrass and
accomplish the same thing."
Perhaps the greatest benefit of switchgrass to soil
quality comes through its manipulation of nutrients.
According to Sellers, switchgrass is a C4 grass, which
means nutrients move throughout the plant during different
times of the growing season. This culminates with the
first killing frost in the fall, when nutrients like
phosphorous and potassium move into the roots. As a
result, nutrients stay circulating throughout the soil,
rather than being removed, like they are with row crops.
"At the time of the killing frost, all the P and
K in the plant goes back down to the root. So, if you
wait two weeks after a killing frost, almost all of
the nutrients have gone back into the roots for the
next year," Sellers says. "It makes it extremely
sustainable so you don't have the enormous take-out
rates that you see, for example, when you cut silage
and remove all of it for hay."
Even though some say the conservation of natural resources
in agriculture is a point of strength of current farm
policy, when it comes to switchgrass production, a natural
means of soil conservation, current law leaves much
to be desired. The coming years will be pivotal for
the future of growing switchgrass, as CRP contracts
are fulfilled and more of that land will be released
back to production. Yet, currently, CRP land must consist
of polycultural grasses, meaning a mixture of different
types, including switchgrass. The result is a set of
requirements that works against the replacement of CRP
grasses with a switchgrass monoculture for production.
"Our acres are down because of the farm program,
with the renewal of CRP contracts. Guys are having good
switchgrass stands, but they're having to tear it out
because of CRP," Sellers says. "There are
even payment reductions for harvesting it now."
Acres are down, but in the near future, around the
time when the new farm bill is scheduled for approval
by Congress, the reduction could turn into a landslide
because of CRP requirements, like those requiring specific
plantings habitats. Instead, Sellers says strict requirements
should be abandoned in favor of what works in terms
of conservation, sustainability and profitability, all
things farmers know a great deal about.
"In 2007, we're going to have a major revolt of
farmers who have perfectly good stands of both warm-
and cool-season grasses, and they're going to say they've
had enough of this, because they don't want to have
to spend $200 to $300/acre for some exotic native grass
mix that is going to be extremely difficult to establish
and manage. The new seeding requirements affect farmers
who have contracts expiring in the next few years--more
than 1 million acres in 2007 through 2009--and wanting
to renew," says Sellers. "A lot of times,
you've got a wildlife specialist who lives in town,
learning this stuff out of a book, and he has no idea
what it takes to establish or manage a stand. I can
get folks out here, show them how I can manage these
grasses and how I can produce fabulous wildlife habitat."
The net effect of these misguided controls over CRP,
Sellers says, are leading to an obvious outcome for
"I'm going to have to bail out of (CRP),"
he says. "I'm just heartsick, because I love CRP,
because it's allowing me to have the habitat out here.
But, I've also got a farm that I need to make a living
Yet, if regulation can turn a corner towards switchgrass,
and a safety net can be established under switchgrass
growers, something Sellers says is the first step in
fostering a healthier switchgrass industry, the crop's
vast potential could be realized.
"This stuff does have a place, and is going to
become more of a player, but our policy is just getting
more and more difficult all the time. Some people just
can't see the big picture. There are a few senators,
especially in the upper Midwest, who see the potential
for this, but we're not getting all the support, policy-wise,
we need at this time," Sellers says. "It is
a potential gold mine. But, how long can we wait? I'm
going to be 60 in a few days. I can wait a little while
longer. I'm still an innovator, and I'll still try anything,
but how long do you wait before you just throw up your
hands and look at other alternatives?"