Planting and Growing Miscanthus Giganteus as a BioEnergy Crop in Missouri

Final Report for FNC07-692

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2007: $5,995.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information

Summary:

PROJECT BACKGROUND
I am a Native seed and Turf seed grower who grows several hundred thousand pounds of seed in western Missouri.

My cropping cycle of grasses was a natural fit for growing elephant grass on my farm.

I traditionally no-till all of my seed crops.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION
Can we grow Miscanthus/Elephant grass in the Midwest? Yes

Learning to plant a tuber and watch this plant grow was a true learning experience. We have processed one crop of round bales into biomass pellets then that material was consumed at a local utility to create green electricity through the bio-refinery Show Me Energy Cooperative in Centerview, Missouri.

PROCESS
I bought a book about Miscanthus called “Miscanthus for Energy and Fiber” by Jones and Walsh. I also called an organization called Bical in England. This group has been growing Miscanthus for 15 years and utilizing it at feedstock and coal-fire at a local utility throughout the United Kingdom. I learned from their Miscanthus growers what to do and not to do. I learned how to plant Miscanthus with mechanical precision.

The NRCS soil analysis showed this particular field to be Hage soil classification, and organic matter at 2.7%. It was marginal Missouri land. It was low in phosphate and potash, but the Miscanthus didn’t need any fertilizer to grow. In fact, everything I have read shows no response to any fertilizer, as the plant takes everything in atmospherically.

This crop [is best] to plant as a small acreage scale crop. It costs too much in labor and plant material to plant large areas.

[Editor’s note: See the website: http://missouribioenergy.com/index.html for details and photos of the planting process. The original plan was to use a modified potato planter to plant the rhizomes, but Flick thought it would be easier to work with a modified Bermudagrass Sprigger and got a machine from Georgia to work with to plant the rhizomes. He thought this would allow them to take the planting to a larger level but it caused problems.]

I modified a Bermuda spreader for this project. The tubers were soaked before planting so they wouldn’t dry out after being dug and split from the root ball. Thousands of them were loaded in the bucket of a tractor and loaded into the sprigger. This machine usually takes rough sprigs dirt and all, and slices a furrow into the ground, and delivers the sprigs to the forward chain mechanism. Our problem with our sprigs was that they were too clean-no dirt was allowed on them and the rhizomes that we processed flew over the end gate and had multiple plantings in one location. It took several engineering principles to make this work.

Flick explained, “It took us about a day to figure all the metrics out- I wouldn’t do it again with the same equipment- the rhizomes were too clean and the machine wanted to plant way too fast. For the 8-acre field, it took 4 hours of planting and 40 hours of engineering for it to work right. Smaller and simpler methods seemed to work better. Not all of the rhizomes are uniform.”

Two acres of red clover were planted around the Miscanthus as a border to prevent the rhizomes from migrating.

PEOPLE/ORGANIZATIONS
1. Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute to promote the idea to grow Miscanthus here in Missouri
2. Bermudagrass Sprigger—From Georgia that was easy to work with to modify a Bermuda grass spreader to learn how to plant tubers mechanically
3. NRCS –To understand the soil equations of what amount of N, P & K Miscanthus would be taking out of the ground.

RESULTS
With USDA BCAP program being implemented in the fall of 2010, the future of energy crops will have a deciding factor on American Agriculture. Planting the Miscanthus rhizomes is very labor intensive, and I suspect farmers will adopt small fields (less than 10 acres) to harvest. The rhizomes like wet gumbo type ground, and thrive in wet years. If purchased from a local grower it will take about $5500.00/acre to establish.

Results achieved were measured by harvesting biomass tons/acre. Biomass harvested per acre was 6.7 tons in 2008 and 11.7 tons in 2009. This is more than the traditional Switchgrass that is grown in the area. This crop loves rainfall and in the last 2 years made it grow. In fact I would suggest growing Miscanthus in very heavy wet soils not on hill ground. It loves abundant moisture and heat to grow.

If I would change anything next time, I would like to no-till plant in a chemical killed annual ryegrass field. I believe it would help on weed control tremendously.

Foxtail and common ragweed were the biggest weed problems but just during establishment. Herbicides used during the establishment phase of Miscanthus (year one) are the same herbicides used in corn. Herbicides won’t be needed after the 2nd year after planting since the Miscanthus becomes so thick.

DISCUSSION
It is my opinion that Miscanthus will be adapted by young beginning farmers coming back from college to the farm. Also small farms (less than 20 acres) will jump on the bandwagon. Displaced tobacco farmers, truck gardeners and small city farmers will start this industry.

As to the marketing of Miscanthus, a biorefinery first and foremost needs to be build. It is useless as a feedstock for forage for livestock; there is limited non-energy use. I suspect producers will organize, fund and engineer plants like Show Me Energy Coop, depending on local interest. The Cooperative presently licenses technologies to other producers groups so they can emulate our model. With today’s tight capital markets I see these plants on a small scale of less than 150 thousand tons per year and providing real jobs in rural America. Processing biomass is not easy, but the demand for renewable fuel is growing, especially for European export.

Processing biomass at the Show Me Energy Coop refinery is a highly guarded trade secret, with very intellectual patented technology. I will comment though, that there was no problem processing the Miscanthus into pellets which was further sold to a utility in the southern United States.

Farmers should plant a one-acre nursery bed the first time—then harvest those rhizomes in two years for planting. I suspect that will plant around 50 acres. This helps off set the cost of the rhizomes.

[Editor’s Note: Show Me Energy Cooperative has discovered a new use for Miscanthus – cleaning up oil spills. It takes 10 tons of material per surface acre of water. For details see the youtube video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZw_bs4WdA0.]

OUTREACH
I personally have traveled approximately 200,000 miles in 2009 speaking on behalf of the biorefinery Show Me Energy Cooperative. I was a topic speaker at the University of Illinois’s 2009 Miscanthus seminar on the possibilities of Miscanthus as an energy crop. I have also spoken on the hill in Washington, D.C. in support of the REAP and 9003 program of the 2008 farm bill. I have also done several television and radio spots that involve renewable energy. I have presented a 30-slide copyrighted PowerPoint show about the technology of Biomass and what our vision is as a Cooperative to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels.

Steve Flick gave presentations on Miscanthus at:
• Farm Smart 2009 – Canada
• Great Plains Institute Midwest Ag Energy Network – North Dakota
• Ontario Greenhouse Growers. – Kingston
• Annual Biomass Supply Chain Conference – St Louis
• Canadian Bio Energy Association Agro- BioMass Workshop – Kingston
• 6th Annual Biomass Feedstock Symposium in Illinois on January 13th and 14th, 2009
• 2009 Farmers Forum at the National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference in Columbia, Missouri

Due to extremely wet weather the last two years, we cancelled planned field trips, but plan on having a Miscanthus field day in August 2010. The Jefferson Institute planted several of my rhizomes in Columbia, Missouri and has promoted the growing of small scale plots.

This project was very public—including Highway Patrol Flyovers—There is a story about this.

[Editor’s note: Flick says they have farmers come by all the time to see the planting and they show them around. The biggest community outreach was when two highway patrol officers did a fly over and wanted to know what was growing in the middle of the Miscanthus patch. Steve welcomed them to go look. They tried to look in the middle of the patch but it was so thick they couldn’t walk through it. They determined the plant growing in the middle of the patch was ragweed.]

Research

Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.