Energy crops show promise in Michigan

Michigan State University Extension demonstration trials evaluate potential of energy crops.

Energy crops are believed to a have an increasing significance in the future of U.S. energy production. As the name implies, energy crops are grown specifically, or may provide crop residues, for use as an energy feedstock. Michigan State University Extension educators have established several demonstration trials throughout Michigan to evaluate the performance potential of biomass crops in Michigan.

The geographic distribution of these trials is important in that it helps to identify strengths and weaknesses based on changes in climate and soils across the diverse state. Two trials have been established in the mid-Michigan area, one in Saginaw County and the other in Isabella County. These trials include perennial crops such as switchgrass and miscanthus as well as annual crops such as field corn, sweet sorghum, energy beets, oriental mustard and canola.

The perennials of switchgrass and miscanthus are both grasses that offer production of large amounts of biomass per acre with limited inputs. Because these trials were established several years ago, these crops have reached maturity and are producing what is expected to be a full crop yield each year. It is normally the third year after establishment that these crops produce a mature yield.

The perennial nature of these crops means they do not need to be established each year, but will regrow from an extensive root system developed in previous years. This root system also stores nutrients that have been translocated from the above-ground growth in the previous growing season. A healthy crop will emerge from winter dormancy with vigor and outgrow most weeds that try to compete for moisture and nutrients. These facts reduce or eliminate the need to seed, till, fertilize and control weeds, thus producing a crop that is high yielding with low inputs. These low inputs create a favorable greenhouse gas emissions profile for these crops.

While the greenhouse gas emissions are somewhat higher for annual crops, they offer the advantages of flexibility in crop choices each year and allow the use of existing equipment and infrastructure. Examples of these annual crops are field corn and sorghum, which have efficient and functional supply chains. A wide range of production practices exists for annual crops that will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions, including reduced or no tillage and the use of nutrients from manure or cover crops.

A summary of crop yields from the Saginaw County and Isabella County trials is shown below.

 

Saginaw County

Isabella County

Crop

DM yield (tons/acre)

Grain yield (bu/acre)

DM yield (tons/acre)

Grain yield (bu/acre)

Corn

3.2

107.0

 

 

Switchgrass

6.0

 

5.4

 

Miscanthus

6.1

 

3.6

 

Sweet sorghum

7.9

 

 

 

Canola

 

 

 

14.8

Oriental mustard

 

 

 

18.8

Continued evaluation of these crops and others will be valuable in being prepared for opportunities in further energy markets. MSU Extension will help provide this information to the energy and agriculture industry to place Michigan in a competitive position to capitalize on opportunities as they arise.

Find more information on bioenergy programs at the MSU Extension Bioenergy website.

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