|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 years.
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.
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
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
"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
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 and coal.
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
The net effect of these misguided controls over CRP, Sellers says,
are leading to an obvious outcome for him personally.
"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?"