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Leopold Center studies alternate biomass crops systems

By Staff | Dec 4, 2009

AMES – Wouldn’t it be great to produce energy, food and feed in Iowa with cropping systems that are profitable for farmers, protect our soil and water and help rural communities?

A team of Iowa State University researchers is imagining that future right now in a long-term project supported by the Ecology Initiative within the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

They are studying a suite of cropping systems that incorporates high-yielding biomass forages such as triticale and sorghum into corn-soybean row crops, plus hybrid aspen trees for long-term biomass yield. The goal is to find combinations of crops that protect soil and water most effectively, can be used for production of renewable energy and are profitable for farmers to produce.

Ken Moore is an ISU agronomist working on the project on the Uthe research and demonstration farm west of Ames in Boone County. “The real promise with bioenergy crops is that they give us an opportunity to grow other crops while still being profitable,” he explained. “To meet the objectives of this project, we will evaluate and compare energy and fertilizer inputs, biomass productivity, water, nutrient and carbon cycling across all the cropping systems.”

The team is examining five cropping systems – corn-soy-triticale-soy, corn and switchgrass, triticale-sorghum, triticale-hybrid aspen and continuous corn. Each cropping system is being grown at five different landscape positions found in Iowa, such as on hilltops, on shoulder slopes, backslopes, bottom of slopes and in flood plains.

There are 75 different test plots and eventually more than 1,000 trees will be planted for this multi-year project.

“Our findings will give farmers more information on the management and productivity of crops grown for biomass,” said Lisa Schulte-Moore, the associate professor of natural resource ecology and management who leads the project. “As markets for biomass develop, these crops can provide farmers with more options and potentially more farm income.”

Schulte-Moore said the team will compare findings to a continuous corn system.

“We’re looking at continuous corn because that’s our baseline given the acres devoted to corn in Iowa, but biomass from corn also poses challenges,” she said. “The residue usually is left on the field for conservation reasons, such as reduction of soil erosion by wind and water, an important aspect for long-term sustainability.”

Two of the cropping systems incorporate perennial grasses and trees. While the short-term biomass harvest from this system is modest, the long-term biomass yield is superior to other options, according to Rick Hall, tree geneticist working on the project. “On an average annual basis, the hybrid aspen trees can produce 25 percent more biomass than corn,” he said.

Jeri Neal, who leads the Leopold Center’s Ecology Initiative, said findings from this project are important for adoption of the “next generation” of biofuel production that uses cellulosic biomass.

“It’s our hope that we can provide farmers with alternative biomass cropping system plans that are environmentally sound, profitable and ready to use when opportunities arise,” she said.

The 2009 harvest marks the end of the first cropping season for the research plots. Other partners on the study include the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, USDA Agriculture and Food Initiative, Committee for Agricultural Development, U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station and ArborGen.

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