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Published April 26, 2010, 08:01 AM

Energy crops could bring return to old Midwestern prairie

SIOUX FALLS — The energy crop fields of the future could render an aesthetic similar to the old Midwestern prairie, with a variety of grasses dotting the lowlands, hills and ridges.
The concept of “sculpting the landscape” was envisioned decades ago by North Dakota plant materials specialist Erling Jacobson, who was looking to revegetate fields in the northern Great Plains as a conservation tool.

By: Dirk Lammers, The Associated Press

SIOUX FALLS — The energy crop fields of the future could render an aesthetic similar to the old Midwestern prairie, with a variety of grasses dotting the lowlands, hills and ridges.

The concept of “sculpting the landscape” was envisioned decades ago by North Dakota plant materials specialist Erling Jacobson, who was looking to revegetate fields in the northern Great Plains as a conservation tool.

South Dakota State University plant researchers are reinvigorating the phrase by applying it to crops that can produce cellulosic ethanol.

Rather than growing potential fuel feedstocks such as switch grass, prairie cordgrass and big bluestem in single-crop fenceline-to-fenceline fields, plant specialists envision zoned plantings adapted to the soils and terrain provided by the earth.

“If we’re going to do this very efficiently and we’re going to maximize our production of biofuel crops on marginal lands, we have to put the best species in the areas where they have a high probability of succeeding,” said Arvid Boe, a professor in SDSU’s plant science department.

Cellulosic-based ethanol isn’t made from food such as corn, dodging the food vs. fuel debate.

So to not tap into high-quality, corn-ready acreage, biofuel crop farmers will have to look beyond flat fields to marginal lands that feature hilltops, backslopes and lowlands.

Jacobson, now retired and living in Minnesota, finds it interesting that the sculpted seeding concept he and his colleagues developed in the mid-1990s is now being applied to energy crops.

The initial goal was to establish a diverse, native plant community capable of regeneration and plant succession by matching site compatibility with species known to thrive under certain conditions.

The new goal is similar.

If farmers can pick fuel-producing plants adapted to the terrain that offer longevity and require less fertilizer, herbicide and insecticide, they can produce nonfood ethanol feedstocks that can better compete with corn.

For instance, prairie cordgrass is well adapted to wet, salty soils where corn, soybean, wheat and switch grass wouldn’t do well, Boe said. A plant such as switch grass would perform better upland.

Boe said the next step would be to overlay a management scheme for periodic cuttings and harvesting of the perennial crops.

The cellulosic ethanol industry remains in its infancy, and it’s not yet known what kind of feedstocks ethanol producers will require.

The long-range plan calls for a diversity of feedstocks, but if producers want uniformity such as only bales of switch grass, farmers will have to fit into that.

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