Switching to Switchgrass?

Could switchgrass be the next big bioenergy crop? That’s the question at the heart of Eilish Hanson’s thesis exploring the economics of growing switchgrass in the Upper Missouri River Basin.

Up until now, switchgrass has been grown only in small quantities, primarily as feed for cattle. However, it has been studied for decades as a potential bioenergy crop. Switchgrass could be a source of renewable energy either by being burned to create electricity or fermented to produce ethanol. And it has several advantages of conventional bioenergy crops like corn or sugarcane, for example:

  • It’s a perennial, native grass

  • It can be grown widely throughout much of the U.S.

  • It can be grown on marginal land not suitable for other crops

  • It provides habitat for wildlife, erosion control, and maintains healthy soils

  • It requires fewer inputs than other crops

However, switchgrass hasn’t been widely adopted as a bioenergy crop yet, and the stumbling block has largely been economic. In particular, for switchgrass to be grown on a commercial scale in the U.S. it would be need to be profitable for producers to grow it.

In her thesis, Eilish Hanson estimated that producers in the Upper Missouri River Basin would need to receive at least $40 per ton just to cover their costs of production. And, realistically, for producers to voluntarily switch to growing switchgrass, they would need to receive more than this to incentivize them to take on the additional risk of growing a new crop.

The Upper Missouri River Basin

However, if market prices alone don’t make switchgrass production profitable for farmers, introducing policy incentives that increase the price received per ton of switchgrass could incentivize switchgrass production and realize the many advantages it offers over conventional bioenergy feedstocks.

It's also important to recognize that even if profit margins were high enough, these prices do not factor in the very low number of biomass processing facilities currently within or near the UMRB region. Ultimately, in order for switchgrass bioenergy markets to be successfully adopted in the UMRB, both switchgrass production and biomass processing facility locations must increase simultaneously.

To learn more about Eilish's research on the economics of growing switchgrass in the Upper Missouri River Basin, read the fact sheet fact sheet "Is Growing Switchgrass Economically Feasible?" and the "Swtichgrass Crop Budget".

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