Is Switchgrass the Next Cash Crop?

For the past month and half there has been a lot of talk about cellulosic ethanol. The majority of this discussion has stemmed from the President mentioning switchgrass on multiple occasions when speaking on the topic of energy dependence and biofuels. Recently President Bush has called for a huge, government-mandated increase in renewable energy production – mainly ethanol. Ken Cook, of Mulch describes Bush’s plan in more detail in this article.

The problem with the President’s plan is that it could possibly cause a reduction in the amount of land currently enrolled in the CRP. Many believe this could put pressure on corn growers to switch CRP land over into corn production. It has been well known that for the US to achieve greater levels of ethanol production without exhausting our current corn industry, a transition must be made to cellulosic ethanol production. Enter stage right, switchgrass.

Switchgrass is often used in CRP planting and could be part of the ethanol solution. By allowing the harvest of native grasses such as switchgrass, the US could potentially increase its ethanol production substantially. However, the issue at hand is that it must be done in a manner so as not to effect the original intent of the Conservation Reserve Program – soil, water, and wildlife conservation. Currently, over 27 million acres of
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts are on farmland capability classes I to IV, lands that are suited for growing crops.. That is a very significant amount of acreage that could be producing plant material for use in ethanol production while still maintaining soil, water, and wildlife.

There have been numerous suggestions that could possibly allow the dual system to exist. If a percentage of CRP acreages was left unharvested each season, it would give upland game birds cover and food to make it through the winter. Other’s have suggested leaving stubble at height of 12 inches or more, to leave upland game enough winter cover.

How it all plays out will be an interesting spectacle. For now, it looks as though the issue is getting enough attention that the pro’s and con’s are being seriously considered. I think it is safe to say that most wildlife professionals and enthusiasts are hopeful that a multi-dimensional solution can be reached which benefits all parties involved. The important thing to remember throughout these discussions is that if CRP land is to be used in the production of ethanol; soil, water, and wildlife must remain the most important factors in the CRP-ethanol relationship.

Photo top left:From left, Ed Richardson, interim president of Auburn University, and Jeff Sessions, US Senator, walk through a stand of switchgrass at Auburn University’s E. V. Smith Research Laboratory near Tallassee, Ala. on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006. They had early been speakers in a Bioenergy Conference with talks of switchgrass being researched at Auburn as an alternative energy crop. Montgomery Advertiser, Lloyd Gallman

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