Establishment of Miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus) as an Alternate Bedding Supply

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2011: $7,350.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Grant Recipient: Central Manor Dairy
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Steven Harnish
Central Manor Dairy

Annual Reports


  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: housing, manure management
  • Crop Production: application rate management, cover crops
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: feasibility study
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, integrated crop and livestock systems
  • Soil Management: composting

    Proposal summary:

    Kiln-dried shavings have been the bedding material of choice for dairy producers in the Northeast. On dairies that are not equipped to handle sand bedding, shavings support less bacterial growth than other bedding alternatives. The shavings are a byproduct of woodworking operations and require significant hauling expense to reach most farms. In recent years the emergence of wood pellets as a heating source has increased the price and reduced the availability of wood shavings, especially in winter months. I propose that locally-grown Miscanthus canes could replace much of the sawdust and shavings currently trucked to dairy farms. Miscanthus is a high-yeilding perennial grass that produces tall canes through the spring and summer. The plants lose their leaves in the fall and dry out over the winter. The dried canes can be harvested using either a forage harvester or baler. Once established, a stand of Miscanthus x giganteus needs no tillage, no replanting, no fertilizer and no herbicides or pesticides. Some European fields have been harvested for decades with no management needed between harvests. Most trials in the US report a 10-15 ton/acre yield after the stand reaches maturity. (Some commercial marketers claim much higher yields.) Miscanthus x giganteus is a sterile hybrid, so there are no viable seeds produced and no opportunity for it to be invasive. The major drawback of Miscanthus as a bedding source is the cost of establishment. Additionally, a new stand produces little or no yield in the first year and will not reach maximum yield until the third year. The typical method of propagation is to plant rhizomes cut from either potted plants or 1-2 year-old stands. The rhizome dividing and planting is either very labor intensive or requires very expensive, specialized equipment. The interest in Miscanthus as a biomass crop has led to the availability of this equipment in the United States. A recent development that would lower the cost of establishment for a medium-scale project like this is the marketing of a plug produced from rooted stem cuttings. These small plugs could be planted using vegetable trans-planters commonly in use. Central Manor Dairy would have to commit valuable farmland through two crop years before harvesting any Miscanthus. One possible location for a trial plot includes a contour strip with a steep grade susceptible to erosion. At the other end of the strip is a well that supplies drinking water to an elementary school adjacent to the farm. The nutrient management plan for our farm prohibits manure application within 100 feet of a wellhead. Selecting miscanthus for this field would allow us to both minimize soil erosion and avoid any fertilizer application near the well. Our farm has access to a tomato planter from a neighbor and also owns a self propelled forage harvester. We also have the sprayer and herbicides used during the establishment year for weed control. The chopped miscanthus would be primarily used in our compost bedded-pack milking cow barn. I propose to establish a stand of Miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus) for the purpose of producing bedding material. The unique qualities of this large perennial grass make it a potential replacement for the kiln-dried wood shavings currently in use on many dairy farms. Because of its low input requirements Miscanthus would be an ideal crop for buffer zones, around wellheads, and near terrace drain inlets where manure application is not allowed.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    We have selected two field plots for miscanthus production, both currently have a rye cover crop. In June we will burn down that cover crop using our sprayer. In May 2011, after the threat of frost, we will plow and cultivate the fields with our own equipment to create the fine seedbed needed for transplantation.
    I have selected New Energy Farms of Leamington, Ontario as the supplier for miscanthus seedstock. They will ship either rhizomes, bare root plants, or plugs. A neighbor has agreed to rent us his tomato planter which would plant the plugs with some minor adjustments to the machine. We would use farm employees to accomplish the planting. Miscanthus plants spread through rhizome growth at the rate of 12 inches per year. The planting rate can be determined by how soon you want the field to reach full plant density. For growers that want to harvest rhizomes for propagation in the first two years, plugs can be planted at 10000/acre. For the purposes of this trial, the usual recommendation of 5000 plants/acre would create maximum yield on the third year, but cost considerably less to establish. The only exception would be 1/2 an acre of one plot where the field is moderately sloped. There we will plant at 10000/acre to avoid erosion.

    During the spring and summer we will monitor weed populations and use recommended herbicides or mechanical cultivation to control them. No weed control should be needed in subsequent years.
    No significant yield is expected during the first winter harvest season, so it won’t be until the winter of 2012-13 that we can harvest the first crop. We will monitor plant moisture levels throughout the winter until the canes are 85% dry matter. The miscanthus will be direct-cut using our self-propelled forage harvester and silage trucks. Each load will be weighed so that the tonnage/acre can be calculated. The chopped miscanthus will be stored in our commodity barn.

    To evaluate chopped miscanthus as a bedding source we will compare it to screened horse bedding in our compost bedded pack barn. We will take dry matter and temperature measurements from eight locations in the barn and from the two bedding sources. Then we will bed half of the barn with equal amounts of each type of the bedding every week until all of the miscanthus is used. Final dry matter and temperature recordings will be taken to determine if miscanthus is a viable alternative to wood shavings as a bedding source.
    If yields are sufficient from the 2012-13 harvest, we should be able to make a good evaluation of miscanthus as a bedding source. If this is the case, we would still record the yield for the 2013-14 harvest, but not repeat the bedding trial. If not, we would delay the bedding trial until the following year.

    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.