HAYS, Kan. – Talk about a “green” idea -- using land taken out of agricultural production for conservation purposes and later using plant materials from it to produce biofuels, while retaining conservation benefits for the land.
To that end, Kansas State University researchers are studying the feasibility of using land that had been enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program to grow plants for the biomass market.
“CRP is a program that began in 1985, that takes land out of crop production and puts it into perennial grassland in order to conserve soil and reduce surface water runoff,” said K-State range scientist Keith Harmoney. “When this project started in 2008, Kansas had about 3 million acres in CRP land, but by the end of 2011, about 50 percent of those CRP contracts will expire.”
Harmoney, who is based at K-State’s Agricultural Research Center in Hays, is studying different ways to manage former CRP land that could produce biomass while retaining water quality, wildlife habitat and soil conservation benefits.
“We're looking to see if there are other ways that producers can utilize the CRP lands without putting them back into row crops,” he said of the five-year study that began in 2008 and is scheduled to end with the harvest in 2012.
Kansas is one of six states involved in the study, and the 18-acre CRP site near Hays is the only site in Kansas. Other states in the study are Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Missouri and Georgia.
The research, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and Sun Grant Initiative, examines different management strategies, including using no nitrogen fertilizer, applying 50 pounds of N per acre and applying 100 pounds of N per acre.
The dominant grasses on the acreage are sideoats grama, indiangrass, little bluestem, switchgrass and big bluestem. A significant amount of yellow sweetclover is also present.
“The harvest management we’re studying is close to peak standing crop, shortly after the mid-point of summer, after July 15, and the other is at the end of the season after the first frost,” Harmoney said. The July 15 date is important because it marks the end of the Kansas grassland bird-nesting season, so harvesting after that date, in late July or early August, avoids disturbing any nesting birds.
“This research project is a little bit different than your typical plot research experiments,” the range scientist said. “It’s much larger scale. Each of the plots is one acre in size, which means we’ve been able to use typical field scale equipment to harvest the plots -- just like the swathers and balers that producers would use.”