Univeristy of Missouri receives grant to research alternative biofuels
Producing biofuel crops can help the environment and ease demand for fossil fuels--or it can do exactly the opposite, depending on how farmers manage the land. University of Missouri researchers have received a $250,000 federal grant to demonstrate techniques for growing biofuel crops while supporting wildlife, protecting soil and water, and bolstering the farmer's profits.
"MU is the model for demonstrating how conservation, wildlife and modern agriculture can work together," said Tim Reinbott, director of the new project and superintendent of MU's Bradford Research and Extension Center in Columbia. "We have generated a lot of attention from Midwestern and Southern states interested in adopting the educational and extension approaches we have used to integrate these disciplines."
The award was part of an $18 million set of Conservation Innovation Grants announced July 13, by Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack. The grants support the development of new technologies and approaches to help farmers conserve and sustain natural resources.
With matching funds from the Missouri Department of Conservation, the nonprofit conservation group Quail Unlimited and others, the award package for MU will total more than $500,000.
Federal mandates call for the annual production of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022, including 15 billion gallons from cellulosic ethanol. Corn is the main source of ethanol today, but producers are looking at other crops, particularly switchgrass, an adaptable, high-yield perennial that is good at tolerating drought, flooding, pests and poor soil.
But switchgrass has some drawbacks too, Reinbott said. Switchgrass is hungry for nitrogen fertilizer, which in commercial form has a heavy carbon footprint and a price tag tied to fossil fuel prices. The push for biofuels may motivate farmers to convert cornfields and pasture to switchgrass or plant switchgrass on marginal land that now hosts diverse, wildlife-friendly plant communities.
"Large stretches of switchgrass are essentially a desert for wildlife," Reinbott said.
Densely growing switchgrass provides little space for animals to find food, tend their young and escape from predators, he said.
For most of the last decade, Bradford Farm has been a center for the development and refinement of techniques that profitably integrate wildlife habitat into modern agriculture. Since 2003, Bradford Farm has seen a 23-fold increase in its population of northern bobwhite quail, a once-plentiful game bird that often serves as a bellwether of ecosystem health. Hundreds of farmers and landowners attend field days and workshops at Bradford to learn about incorporating wildlife habitat into farmland.
Reinbott, research specialist Ray Wright and MU Extension wildlife specialist Bob Pierce have expanded the focus of this work from traditional row crops such as corn and soybeans to switchgrass and other biofuel crops.
As an alternative to switchgrass monocultures, the researchers at Bradford are growing demonstration plots for biofuel production that mix grasses with legumes such as clover and lespedeza, and forbs, which are a group of broadleaf plants that includes sunflowers, goldenrod and coreopsis. Such mixtures provide wildlife with varied types of food and cover. They also can lower the need for added nitrogen and other nutrients, reducing production costs and potentially shrinking a field's carbon footprint by several tons per acre.
Reinbott noted that research at the University of Minnesota indicates that mixtures of grasses, legumes and forbs actually can yield more biomass for biofuel use than monocultures.
The Conservation Innovation Grant will enable MU to showcase alternative production strategies for biofuel crops at three other MU research farms: Greenley Center in northeast Missouri, Hundley-Whaley Center in northwest Missouri and Southwest Center in Mt. Vernon. Each center will collaborate with private farmers or landowners.
"With the grant, we can take this to different parts of the state that will not only allow more Missouri farmers to learn about the strategies developed at Bradford Farm, it will allow researchers to tailor these strategies for different climates and soil conditions" Reinbott said. "There's not one formula for every place."