May 30, 2007
Belleville, NY – How good is grass as a bioenergy crop? Cornell University researchers, FFA students and Northern New York farmers expect to answer that question with the results of grass trials recently planted at Belleville-Henderson Central School.
Over the next two years, 24 plots of switchgrass, indiangrass, big bluestem, and Eastern gamagrass and species mixes will be evaluated as bioenergy crops grown under local conditions.
The plantings join existing and new trials in St. Lawrence County; new trials are planned for Eastern Northern New York in 2008.
The research into the value of the warm season grasses is funded by the farmer-driven Northern New York Agricultural Development Program (NNYADP) specific to Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence, Franklin, Clinton and Essex counties; the New York Farm Viability Institute; and Cornell University’s NYS Agricultural Experiment Station.
NNYADP board member and beef farmer Don Holman says, “The opportunities for grass-based agriculture in Northern New York are exploding – from grass-fed livestock production to growing grasses to power our equipment and farms, heat our homes, and sell. Testing under our local climate and growing conditions provides valuable data for farmers to factor into our decision-making.”
Dr. Donald R. Viands, a plant breeder, and Plant Breeding and Genetics Research Associate Julie L. Hansen, both of Cornell University, and Cornell Cooperative Extension Associate Hilary Mayton are project leaders.
A plant pathologist, entomologist, weed scientist, crop and nutrient management specialists, and staff at the USDA Big Flats Plant Materials Center in Corning, NY, will assess the entire feedstock production system for the grasses. An economist will analyze 2008 field samples data for the grasses’ income potential.
The Belleville-Henderson grass plots, planted next to a willow biomass project, will be evaluated for seedling stand and vigor in four to six weeks.
The plots will be clipped to reduce weed pressure since the most effective herbicide for the grasses is not approved for use in New York State.
Hansen says, “This year we want to see these warm weather grasses establish themselves. Then they have to survive the Northern New York winter. These varieties have a high yield potential but we do not know how they will weather the cold northern climate. Next year we will let the grasses grow and evaluate them for yield, BTUs per acre and the potential to produce ethanol per acre.”
Viands says, “Grass and legume crops potentially provide more economical and environmentally sustainable feedstocks than corn for ethanol production. Their perennial growth eliminates the costs associated with an annual crop and they are environmentally more sustainable because of their lower nutrient inputs and because their root system holds the soil against erosion and they require less land disturbance as they grow.”
Belleville-Henderson Central School sits amidst a largely agricultural land base in Southern Jefferson County. Cornell Cooperative Extension Field Crops Educator Michael E. Hunter says the school campus is an ideal location for the grasses trial. Not only did the school students clear the field plots of rocks prior to planting, they are an ideal audience for this type of project.
“Bioenergy is an issue that we need to put in front of our school-age children. What better way than to bring the issue to the attention of students than to have the rare opportunity to place a field trial at a school with an active FFA group and agriculture teacher,” Hunter says, “and having the grass trial next to the willow biomass – another up and coming biomass crop – at the school offers a nice side-by-side comparison of two really different crops.”
Belleville-Henderson agriculture teacher and FFA Advisor Stephen Jones says, “Having the grass research trials at our high school is a unique opportunity for our agriculture science students. Students can have first-hand knowledge and experience in future potential energy sources. This also gives us the opportunity to work with research scientists from top notch universities and to see, in-person, the procedures they use in plant science research.”
Research Puts NNY Farmers Ahead of Energy Curve
Hunter says grass crops first found favor with conservationists looking to provide cover for birds and other wildlife. Interest in the grasses to produce heat and farm income is more recent and gaining interest throughout Northern New York.
Hunter says that, as markets build for cellulosic fuel sources, trials such as those at the Belleville-Henderson school, earlier and new-in-2007 grass trials at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Learning Farm in Canton in St. Lawrence County, and plantings to follow in Eastern New York in 2008 provide educators with answers to the questions that will come as farmers look at alternative crops.
“This research puts us a step ahead for when the phone calls start and farmers want to know which biofuel crops will produce the best under our Northern New York growing conditions. With these trials we can give those farmers a head start,” Hunter says.
New York State Forage Specialist and Cornell Crop and Soil Sciences Professor Dr. Jerry H. Cherney, who is evaluating the pelletizing of grass crops for fuel production, says, “Grass biofuel for combustion should eventually surface as one of the alternative solid biomass winners.”
Hunter notes that Sundance Pool and Leisure of Watertown successfully burned switchgrass pellets in a biomass stove at the 2007 Spring Home Show at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds and that a Pennsylvania company is about to debut a tractor-driven hay pelletizer that could encourage additional interest in on-farm development of the grass crops. At an expected cost of up to $80,000 for the new machine, the potential may exist for a custom service that would go from farm to farm to pelletize the grasses.
The Northern New York Agricultural Development Program is a farmer-driven research, education and outreach program funding projects that take place on regional farms, at the research farms in Northern New York.