Sustainability of a Short-Rotation Woody Biofuel System Compared to Grass Biofuel and Grain Cropping Systems

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2011: $198,321.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Hank Stelzer
University of Missouri

Annual Reports


  • Additional Plants: native plants, trees


  • Crop Production: agroforestry, forestry
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, mentoring, networking, participatory research, workshop, youth education
  • Energy: bioenergy and biofuels
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, agricultural finance
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration, afforestation, soil stabilization
  • Soil Management: soil microbiology, organic matter, soil physics, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities

    Proposal abstract:

    The project seeks to improve crop profitability for farmers by replacing under-performing grain crops growing on marginal cropland with better-performing, low-input, bioenergy grass systems. The North Central region has over 11 million acres of claypan and claypan-like soil areas that are disproportionate sources for non-point pollution and soil quality degradation when used for grain production. At the same time, North Central region power plants are creating a growing demand for biomass crops. The project will create 30 research and demonstration plots within the Mark Twain Watershed. Farmers and educators will have the chance to observe all phases of producing energy crops in claypan areas (e.g. establishment, growth and development, and harvesting). Researchers will gain valuable soil and water data to assess the environmental sustainability of growing dedicated energy crops. The project’s outputs will be content contribution to eXtension's Farm Energy Community of Practice, two research publications, two guide sheets on grass energy crops and three workshops. The short-term outcome of the project is increased knowledge among attending farmers and educators, the intermediate outcomes is an increase in farmers who establish dedicated energy crops. The long term outcome will be a systemic change in the farming community where grass bioenergy systems are valued as a short-term commodity and as a valuable long-term contributor to the health of the land. An advisory board that includes six farmers will lead a process and product evaluation; impacts will also be evaluated through pre/post surveys at workshops and a six month follow-up survey.

    NOTE: As a result of the catastophic summer drought of 2012, the woody biofuel component was lost. Those research plots were replaced with another promising grass biofuel, miscanthus.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This project seeks to improve the farmers’ crop profitability, and their lands’ soil and water quality by replacing under-performing grain crops growing on marginal cropland with better-performing, low-input, grass biofuel crops. The project takes an integrated approach to dedicated energy crop development combining environmental and production research with outreach efforts designed for both farmers and educators. Results will afford farmers and educators the opportunity to observe all phases of producing energy crops (e.g. establishment, growth and development, and harvesting), as well as comparing production inputs/outputs to conventional grain cropping systems. More importantly, soil and water data from the replicated plots will enable researchers, farmers and educators to assess the environmental sustainability of growing dedicated energy crops. These observations and science-based data will have the short-term outcome of increasing the knowledge gain by attending farmers and educators that will foster the intermediate outcomes of area farmers establishing dedicated energy crops to support central Missouri’s emerging bioenergy market. These intermediate outcomes will help foster a systemic change in the farming community where grass bioenergy crops are viewed not only as a valuable short-term commodity capable of enhancing a farmer’s bottom line; but, as a valuable long-term contributor to the health of the land. Short-term outcomes • Farmers and educators will increase their knowledge of the soil-enhancing benefits of producing dedicated energy crops on marginal claypan soils. • Farmers and educators will learn how to produce these crops. Intermediate outcomes • Early-adopter farmers will use the information they learned to establish sustainable supplies of biomass that will support established bioenergy markets in mid-Missouri, such as the University of Missouri Energy Plant in Columbia or Show-Me Energy in Centerview, Missouri. • The less intensive management in producing energy crops compared to conventional grain cropping systems will reduce soil erosion. • Educators will disseminate their expanded knowledge of producing dedicated energy crops in their region of influence. Long-term outcomes • Farmers growing energy crops on marginal claypan soils will reduce their production input costs compared to conventional grain cropping systems thereby increasing their profitability. • Soil organic matter and soil structure will be improved over time as a result of leaving plant root systems in the soil. • The expanded growth and development of the supply chain involved in producing, harvesting and transporting bioenergy crops to bioenergy facilities will provide stable jobs and enhance the quality of life in rural communities. Expected outputs will be: • Two, science-based, peer-reviewed manuscripts evaluating quantitative yield data and nutrient, herbicide, sediment, and runoff volume among the cropping systems. • Provide project information through traditional newsletters, such as MU Forestry’s Green Horizons quarterly publication, and local newspapers. • Provide project information through two eXtension Communities of Practice (CoP): (1) Wood Energy and (2) Farm Energy. • A minimum of two MU Guide Sheets on willow energy crops: (1) Growing Short-Rotation Willow for Bioenergy and (2) Improving Soil Condition of Marginal Uplands with Short-Rotation Willow. • Three September workshops, one at the end of each year of the project. A minimum of 10 educators (Extension, NRCS, MO Department of Conservation, high school agricultural education instructors, etc) and 20 farmers will attend each workshop. Each workshop will consist of an indoor PowerPoint presentation in conjunction with field activities at the project site. Year 1 – Establishment of Energy Crops ; Year 2 – Growth and Development of Energy Crops; Year 3 – Yield and Harvesting of Energy Crops. • The PowerPoint presentations, and both still images and video clips will be delivered as webinars through MU Forestry Extension. Highlighted video shorts will be posted on social networks, such as through the MU Cooperative Media Group’s YouTube account. • Upon attending a workshop, the educator will be expected to share their knowledge with farmers and other agricultural educators in their region. This can be through face-to-face workshops or distance-learning webinars. A minimum of ten farmers or agricultural educators will attend each event offered. • Upon attending a workshop, at least six Mid-Missouri farmers within 50 miles of an established bioenergy facility will begin establishing dedicated woody energy crops.

    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.