Crops like switchgrass also can be harvested like hay and used for feeding livestock. (Photo provided by Tim Thornberry)
By Tim Thornberry
In the last few years there have been many projects conducted in the state related to the research of alternative energy sources both from the public and private sectors. These projects have looked at a variety of fuel stocks, ranging from sugar beets to native grasses.
In one such project, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension agents and forage specialists worked with farmers over the last five years exploring the use of switchgrass as a biomass, or renewable energy source. The project, funded by the Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund, involved 20 farmers who raised the crop in an effort to determine the validity of using it as an additive to coal by way of the East Kentucky Power Cooperative.
As the research project comes to an end, test burns proved to be successful, but with no mandates in place in Kentucky that would require the use of such alternative fuels, the project now turns to looking for alternatives uses of the biomass. Ray Smith, forage extension specialist in the UK College of Agriculture said the power company doesn’t have a lot of incentive to burn the biomass, but growing the crop has proven to be successful.
“We’ve got a number of farmers growing it and we feel like it has been successful burning it, but the real catch is the market,” he said. “Right now in Kentucky, the market is not there. For the power companies and East Kentucky Power specifically, it doesn’t make sense economically.”
Smith also said that other options for the switchgrass are being looked at including the use of pellet-type units for individual wood stoves or pellet stoves, as a forage crop for livestock and as a wildlife habitat.
With the help of a Conservation Innovation Grant from the Kentucky office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Smith said these new avenues will be looked at in the event the biomass market doesn’t take off or if farmers want other choices.
“Switchgrass is a very good option to grow as a hay crop. We’ve had extremely dry weather this year and we know switchgrass is a very good grass grown under drought conditions,” he said. “That’s one of its advantages as a biomass but it’s also very useful as a hay crop. It’s good insurance when we get hot dry summers because it will continue to be productive.”
Smith noted that a couple of the farmers that had switchgrass planted said it saved them this year as far as having quality hay for the winter.
That is not to say the crop won’t still be used for energy purposes. But Smith said if the energy market doesn’t develop, those growing it will have more than one use.
“It is a native grass in North America originally here before the first settlers, so it’s very useful for wildlife habitat and to attract wildlife on the farm,” he said. Agencies like the NRCS want to promote things that will help with soil conversation but also with wildlife habitat. They have programs to help with the cost of farmers planting native grasses like switchgrass.”
For those looking to raise the crop for hay, existing equipment will work for harvesting but it should be cut at a vegetative state in order to guarantee optimum quality.
“A good rule of thumb would be to cut it at a leafy stage or a stage where it is not over three feet tall, then the quality compares very well to other grass hay crops,” Smith said.
Also, in Kentucky a producer could likely get two or even three cuttings from switchgrass. Smith emphasized that as a native grass he has heard of stands that are 15 to 20 years old. With that said it will take about three years to get the crop established and be in full production.
Switchgrass also works well in areas not suitable for row crops and is more cost effective in that fewer nutrients are required to get a stand established as opposed to traditional hay grasses thus saving on input costs.
While now may not be the time for switchgrass to be used as a fuel alternative, the biofuels industry as a whole has the potential to be economically beneficial to Kentucky.
Secretary Len Peters of the state’s Energy and Environmental Cabinet said the benefit of our biomass resources cannot be overstated.
“The Governor’s Task Force on Biofuels and Biomass estimated a potential net economic gain to the state of about $3.4 billion, along with an additional 10,000 jobs, much of which would be concentrated within rural areas statewide,” he said. “As a state, we must focus on our strengths—and when it comes to renewables, our strength is in biomass. In fact, I think Kentucky has great potential to be a national leader in the development of a bioenergy industry.”