November 29, 2014

Relatively unknown crop from Asia could be Nebraska’s next soybean

Not bambooIt has an odd name, but a bamboo-like plant from Southeast Asia could be the Nebraska’s next energy crop.

Miscanthus (pronounced mis-CAN-thus) is a relative of sugar cane and it’s about to become much more abundant in a region dominated by corn and soybeans.

Agronomist Emily Heaton is working with miscanthus in Iowa: “When I look at a crop like this, I see a chance to make fossil fuels cleaner, because what we’re talking about doing is blending this very clean, grassy biomass with coal, so it just cleans up coal a little bit.”

The experts say the crop has excellent potential in Nebraska, though very few farmers in the Husker State are growing it, but that may soon change.

Researchers used a 1960s-era foil chopper to cut miscanthus on a test plot. It makes four-by-four foot round bales, weighing between 300 and 500 pounds each. An acre of miscanthus can yield 15 tons of biomass fiber.

Steve Schomberg is growing the crop in Muscatine County, Iowa, the state’s largest miscanthus farm.

“Miscanthus is such a new crop that it gets gawkers, yes, people stop along the road and talk to me about it, ‘What are you growing there?'” Schomberg says. “It’s something that I think is part of our future as farmers, growing bioenergy fuels.”

tractor_cutter_0Schomberg’s crop will be turned into steam and electricity at the University of Iowa power plant.

Ferman Milster, an engineer at the U-of-I, says the key challenge is the absence of a biomass market.

Milster says, “It’s not like a commodities market like coal or natural gas or oil, but I think given time and continued movement toward a more sustainable energy source, we will see biomass develop and continue to look more like a commodity.”

Micanthus is a common biomass fuel in Europe. While the total crop in Iowa is now only about 50 acres, the renewable energy staff is recruiting farmers to have 25-hundred acres in production statewide by the end of 2016.

Heaton reminds that at one time, soybeans were a novel crop in the Midwest and now, they’re abundant.

“Soybeans are a crazy plant from Asia, miscanthus is kind of a crazy plant from Asia,” Heaton says. “I imagine that in ten years, it’s not unreasonable to think that we would have this on thousands of acres in the state at least, and millions in the future.”

Until miscanthus is converted into energy on a larger scale, the harvest is meager and the tall grass is in limited use, as animal bedding or mulch. An ornamental variety of miscanthus is also popular in landscaping. It’s a perennial and one planting may bring 20 years of harvests with limited chemicals necessary.