Growing and Propagating Giant Miscanthus Grass for Biomass Production and Natural Resource Conservation

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2010: $5,979.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Dennis Kasparbauer
Kasparbauer family farm

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Agronomic: general hay and forage crops, grass (misc. perennial), hay


  • Animal Production: feed/forage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, networking
  • Energy: bioenergy and biofuels, energy conservation/efficiency, energy use
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration, biodiversity, hedges - grass, habitat enhancement
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Soil Management: soil analysis, organic matter, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, public policy, social networks, sustainability measures

    Proposal summary:

    The use of farm land for corn and soybean production can lead to undesirable wearing of soil and degradation of natural streams and rivers across the countryside. Biomass is quickly becoming a new energy source for electricity and ethanol, and demand for the material seems to be outpacing the farmers' supply near proposed facilities. In order to help supply the growing need for biomass and to help conserve land and add buffers to rivers and streams, a method is needed for farmers to use. The method must develop a crop that is still profitable and that does not degrade soil quality like corn and soybean production has been shown to exhibit in certain cases.

    Overworked soils are highly prone to increases in soil erosion, as well as poor nutrient levels. Setting this soil aside for profitable biomass crops will improve the crop and landscape diversity of the region and will develop more diverse habitat for natural wildlife, ranging from insects to large animals.

    Giant miscanthus is a perennial grass that has been identified by several land grant universities as a possible solution to the aforementioned problem. Miscanthus can produce up to ten tons of biomass per acre per year, and has an expected minimum ten-year growing cycle. The grass is non-invasive and propagates from rhizomes, or roots, that continue to grow over time. Miscanthus has not been widely accepted by farmers for two major reasons: 1. It is new and farmers do not understand how to grow it. 2. Farmers do not know if they can make a profit growing it due to the labor intensive planting/harvesting work that is required.

    The solution to this problem is to grow a small plot of miscanthus in an area of moderately good soil to both evaluate and show local farmers how the crop can be established, harvested, and later propagated. It will also allow initial data collection to show local farmers how the crop behaves in similar soil regions and climates.

    This project will span 24 months from the time of its approval. A soil study will be done to test if growing miscanthus does not require fertilizer to maintain. This analysis will be done to determine how growing miscanthus can help preserve natural resources in the countryside by monitoring soil quality from season to season.

    Second, a system analysis will be completed to determine profit feasibility, taking into account the amount of effort and time required for any local farmer to convert current ground to miscanthus biomass production and the production that can be expected.

    Ideal land for miscanthus includes buffer strips next to waterways and public areas, replacing switchgrass in land coming out of the Crop Reserve Program (CRP), or an alternative for land that farmers can no longer produce grain on due to extreme soil degradation. Using land in this way would allow a producer to make a profit from the land while still keeping conservation and the natural resources in the forefront. Producing miscanthus rather than using ground as set aside will also reduce the amount of government funds required for supporting CRP agreements.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The information gained about growing miscanthus will be made public in the local newspaper as well as with surrounding organizations that are interested in harvesting large amounts of biomass for biofuel production. These companies include Poet, Syngest, and Flint Hills Resources along with local co-ops, Aspinwall Co-op and Manning Co-op, and local equipment dealerships.

    The local IKM-Manning Community High School agronomy program will be included for outreach to allow the young people in the community to learn about the information on growing miscanthus and what challenges and benefits go along with it. It is expected these future farmers and farm hands will be the people responsible for bringing renewable biomass to the region in the coming years. The project progress and results will be documented and communicated to the interested public by Randy Kasparbauer in a website blog, Facebook, and Twitter social networking sites.

    The project will include input from the local NRCS, Missouri and Mississippi divide RC and D, and the Iowa State University extension. Cooperation with the Southern Iowa RC and D miscanthus research will be done as well. A trip will be made to visit the current small plots of miscanthus in this region to learn more about the plants and to discuss research findings of various miscanthus projects.

    Each research topic will be evaluated in a specific way. Soil nutrient usage will be evaluated by the percentage of nutrient loss/gain. Soil samples will be taken at the beginning of each growing season and at the end of the project for evaluation. The soil study will measure the soil in spring and after a harvest to compare nutrient levels. The soil nutrients of focus will be nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and soil organic carbon. Moisture and major weather events will be monitored throughout the growing seasons for data tracking purposes.

    The difficulty in planting and digging 24,000 plant per acre populations (high) versus 16,000 plant populations per acre (reduced) will be measured by the time, machine power, and physical effort that is required to conduct each step of planting and digging of rhizomes. The overall plant health will also be analyzed for each plot for each season. This is a new study for the Midwest. This type of rhizome planning of grass is not done on a large scale, but will have to be started if biomass is to be a significant player in future energy production.

    All the biomass harvested will be evaluated during each growing season for amount of water received and weather conditions while growing along with final biomass weight output and quality collected for each plot. The biomass will be evaluated by a forage testing laboratory in Nevada, IA. This information will be used to identify the significant trends due to weather and other recorded events.

    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.