Giant Miscanthus Opens Up Acres of Opportunity
August 30, 2007
  • /Agricultural and Consumer Economics
  • /Animal Sciences
  • /Crop Sciences
URBANA - It's become an annual tradition for Eric Rund to travel to Latin America with a group of Midwestern producers to study various farming practices. In 2006, energy costs were on everyone's minds, so he decided to take a group to Brazil to look at how they manage their ethanol production.

He was so impressed that he is leading another group to Brazil in January 2008 to take an even closer look at ethanol production. The trip will include a stop to observe sugarcane being harvested to see how they handle the tremendous tonnage of material.

"The whole country is petroleum independent in large part because of the ethanol they produce," said Rund, who farms 750 acres just south of Champaign. "That got me to thinking: We may not be able to become petroleum independent very quickly, but if we put our minds to it as a nation, we can eventually do it."

Rund puts a lot of stock in Giant Miscanthus as the key crop that may help carry the United States closer to this goal. Miscanthus x giganteus is a perennial grass that grows as tall as 12 feet high and can produce an impressive 15 tons of biomass per acre annually, according to University of Illinois research.

So far, however, Rund has only been able to experiment with less than an acre of Giant Miscanthus because the biggest obstacle at this point has been getting his hands on the plants.

John Caveny, a farmer in Piatt County, has the same difficulty in obtaining Giant Miscanthus propagules; as a result, he grows only a little more than an acre of the grass. However, Caveny has been working on the issue with an ag company and said, "We have finally figured out how to get around this problem." He said there should be limited numbers of Giant Miscanthus propagules available this year and larger numbers available in 2008.

The U of I is also actively working on the propagule shortage through conventional and bioengineering solutions being funded by the Illinois Council on Food and Agricultural Research.

"Perhaps growing high-yielding energy crops could become a third crop for Illinois and elsewhere," said Caveny, who planted his first Giant Miscanthus crop in 2002 as part of an AgriFIRST project that he worked on with Dynegy Midwest Generation. "But until miscanthus is readily available, I don't like to disappoint people and say it's the greatest thing since sliced bread."

Nevertheless, Giant Miscanthus certainly has its advantages, experts say.

According to Stephen Moose, a U of I corn genetics professor, Giant Miscanthus grows vertically more than horizontally, so he and other researchers have never seen it invade adjoining plots. Also, because the highly productive variety of Giant Miscanthus does not produce seeds, that too limits its potential invasiveness.

Being a perennial, Giant Miscanthus requires low management and needs little nitrogen once it has been established. And as Rund noted, Giant Miscanthus can be harvested with readily available equipment during the winter when producers are not as busy.

The energy content of Giant Miscanthus is similar to that of Powder River Basin coal, Caveny says. One acre of Giant Miscanthus, yielding 13 tons of harvestable dry matter, can produce the same amount of energy as 12 tons of Powder River Basin coal.

Caveny is optimistic about the prospects for cellulosic biofuels from crops such as Giant Miscanthus. "It will absolutely happen," he said. "The only impediment right now is the availability of plants. Once that is solved, Giant Miscanthus will take off."

"Giant Miscanthus opens up new acres and new opportunities," Moose added. "I don't know how this will transpire or how growers will embrace this, but we know it can transform rural society and agriculture."