Are you growing switchgrass or miscanthus?
Markets for perennial grasses are expected to grow.
Are you growing switchgrass or miscanthus? If you are, please contact me. I’ll explain why a little later in this article. It seems like every month I discover a Michigan farmer who is growing switchgrass or miscanthus. This seems to be one of Michigan agriculture’s best kept secrets! For the past ten months I have been working with Michigan farmers to develop markets for switchgrass or miscanthus grown on their farms. An article entitled Research Summary: Biomass Crop Production Benefits from a Wide Spectrum of Marketing Opportunities identifies many market opportunities for switchgrass and miscanthus. Through Michigan State University Extension, I am working with farmers who are focused on two of them, solid fuel and animal bedding. The following is a brief summary of what has been done so far with each market opportunity.
A feasibility study funded by a switchgrass grower group in West Michigan and conducted by the Michigan State University Product Center is underway to determine the viability of a facility to manufacture high quality switchgrass pellets for home heating use and cubes for industrial heating use. Currently there is a shortage of hardwood sawdust and hardwood chips in Michigan. The scarcity of hardwood sawdust is forcing one Michigan home heating pellet manufacturing company to send drivers 500 miles one way to procure hardwood sawdust. They recognize this is not economically sustainable and are searching for alternatives. A recent test conducted at Michigan State University indicates that the BTU output of densified switchgrass is within the BTU output range of hardwood pellets and hardwood chips. This finding is significant because densified switchgrass has the potential to replace hardwood pellets used to heat homes and hardwood chips used to fuel industrial boilers.
Miscanthus has absorbency characteristics that make it a good replacement for wood shavings. Chopped miscanthus has an absorbency factor (g water/g bedding) of 2.97 compared to 2.1 for chopped wheat straw and 2.0 for soft wood shavings. This data, however, doesn’t tell the whole story. Farmers who use miscanthus bedding report that it absorbs moisture and then “breathes” it out, allowing the bedding to dry out rather than become soggy like wheat straw does. Switchgrass also has this same characteristic. The ability to “absorb and breathe” makes miscanthus and switchgrass a very desirable livestock and poultry bedding. Unfortunately, Michigan farmers are not familiar with miscanthus bedding and I am hoping to change this. I am currently looking for farmers willing to let me conduct bedding trials on their farms with chopped miscanthus from Maple River Farms in Shiawassee County.
While not the focus of the farmers I am working with, switchgrass mulch also shows promise. A blueberry grower in Oceana County, who also grows switchgrass, has been mulching his blueberries with switchgrass for the past several years and is experiencing great success in controlling weeds. In on-farm trials conducted in herbicide-free strawberry fields in Quebec from 2011-2014, switchgrass mulch was found to reduce annual weed numbers by approximately 80 percent compared to wheat straw.
Market opportunities for switchgrass and miscanthus look promising. Others think so as well. The Ontario Biomass Producers Co-operative Inc. is a group of Ontario farmers exploring the sustainable production and marketing of biomass. Membership in this group is open to all Ontario farm operations, from small to large scale, as well as individuals and businesses who are engaged in the biomass industry. This past week, at the invitation of a Penn State Extension colleague, I witnessed the formation of The Association of Warm-Season Grass Producers. This group of Pennsylvania switchgrass growers formed a new organization dedicated to increasing market demand for their crop. This grower-led organization is now in the process of submitting a Value Added Producer Grant proposal in the hopes of securing funds to assist them in fulfilling their mission.