MARQUETTE - Farmers in the Upper Peninsula who want to play a role in alternative energy may soon be adding a new crop to their list - switchgrass. Agricultural scientist Doo-Hong Min has been studying the grass as a potential supplemental bioenergy crop for the past four years at the Michigan State University U.P. Experiment Station in Chatham. "It has a lot of potential," Min said of the grass that can grow up to six feet tall in the U.P. "I don't think it can be a 'silver bullet' in solving the energy crisis, but it can be used as a supplemental heating and energy source." Min said switchgrass can be grown at marginal, fallow fields, which he said can be found in the U.P. "It has a wide range of climate and soil adaptation," Min said of the native North American plant. Min has been testing nine different varieties of switchgrass at sites in Chatham, Escanaba and Bark River. He said that switchgrass has a very high thermal energy value when burned. And it produces less than 3.5 percent ash content, which makes it a cleaner and more efficient energy source than many fossil fuels. Because switchgrass recycles more than 97 percent of the carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, burning switchgrass can be greenhouse gas neutral. Early in his experiments Min thought the U.P.'s climate might be too cold to grow switchgrass, but he said he's found the climate "is not bad at all," producing 3 to 3.5 dry matter tons of switchgrass per acre with one cutting in late October or early November. All of the nine varieties he's tested in the U.P. have survived. "Switchgrass requires a lot less nutrients to grow than cool-season grasses," Min said. But even during a drought period - like last year's U.P. summer - the grass can be beneficial to farmers. Last summer, his switchgrass fields near Chatham were the only "green" spots in the area. Min said switchgrass can be used as an emergency feed for livestock. Growing warm-season grass such as switchgrass can be similar to having a savings account at the bank, Min said. And the benefits do not stop there. "The switchgrass has a potential for wildlife habitat, especially for birds' nesting," Min said. Switchgrass also produces 3 to 4 dry matter tons of root biomass per acre, which is a lot, Min said. "It can be a really huge carbon source, which results in better soil quality, eventually slowing down the global warming process by sequestering more carbon into the soil." As far as mass producing the crop in the U.P., Min said the lack of a good infrastructure in Upper Michigan for making a bioenergy product using switchgrass with other materials and the uncertainty over production costs is an obstacle right now. But, he added, several individuals have expressed interest in the crop. "In the future I envision if we use switchgrass as an energy source, it should be blended with other materials such as wood chip saw dust, corn stalks or low quality hay bales," he said. "Growing switchgrass is a lot more energy efficient than growing corn." He added that corn is planted each year since it's an annual crop and it is competing with human food consumption. In contrast, switchgrass is a perennial and it is not competing with human food. Switchgrass may also be useful for producing liquid biofuels. It could be used to make cellulosic ethanol -a potential fuel for vehicles. An acre of switchgrass could produce a potential 300 gallons of cellulosic ethanol, based on research in Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota, Min said. Switchgrass is also a low maintenance crop that once established can last up to 15 to 20 years, Min said. "It requires real low maintenance and low fertilizer," he added. "Once you control the weeds before and after planting, I think you're in good shape." Last, Min said, switchgrass also has potential to control soil erosion - making it useful in mining reclamation projects. "The bottom line is whether growing switchgrass is going to be profitable for the farmers in the U.P.," Min said. This summer Min plans to work with eight farmers across the U.P. to determine whether the grass can be grown in any area of the peninsula as a livestock feed as well as a bioenergy crop.
Agricultural scientist Doo-Hong Min holds up a bundle of switchgrass near the Michigan State University U.P. Experiment Station in Chatham. Min is studying switchgrass as a potential bioenergy crop and emergency feed for livestock for U.P. farmers. (Photo courtesy by Doo-Hong Min)