Potential Impact of Biofuels on Forage Production

Dr. Ray Smith, University of Kentucky Forage Extension Specialist (right) entertains questions from ruminant nutritionist Dr. Woody Lane of Oregon

(from the January 18, 2012 issue of Farmer’s Pride)

The affect of grain-based biofuels, particularly ethanol, on food and feed prices have been a constant topic of discussion in the agriculture community for at least the past year.

Would a shift to biomass for ethanol production fuel similar discussions in the forage and livestock community?  It seems it already has.

One of the many topics of discussion at the American Forage and Grassland Council annual conference, held in Louisville January 9-10, was the economic potential of biomass for cellulosic ethanol production.  Conference chair Dr. Ray Smith of the University of Kentucky says the AFGC stance is that this should be another opportunity for farmers to market their forage crops.  Smith noted that “we’ve tried to be very honest in recognizing that it could have an impact on production of forage for livestock.”

For an example, Smith points to German dairymen who often buy corn silage for feed from neighbors.  Those producers now have to compete with entrepreneurs who have set up digesters that can instead turn the silage into methane.

One possible option that Smith says has been discussed at the conference is cultivation of biomass crops, such as switchgrass, which are also a good forage crop.  “There’s a good option for farmers being able to take one or two grazings or possibly a hay cut off a switchgrass stand, then to allow it to grow the rest of the year to be cut either for direct burning in a power plant or processed for ethanol,” said Smith.  “We feel like there is a win-win situation for farmers to grow crops with biomass potential and still have the option for producing livestock feed.”

Smith pointed to a notable exception, miscanthus, which is an excellent biomass producer but has no value as a feed.  The rapid growth, low mineral content and high biomass yield of miscanthus make it a favorite choice as a biofuel, often outperforming some grains and other alternatives in gallons of ethanol produced.  Miscanthus can grow to a height of 10 feet in one season.  Such a plant, according to Smith, need only be harvested once a season, reducing the amount of manpower and fuel inputs necessary for harvest.

Smith agrees that, should the biomass market emerge, it will be a balancing act to make sure it’s a benefit to everyone.

Dr. Richard Crowder of Virginia Tech also spoke to the conference on the globalization challenges and opportunities for forage-based agriculture.  He noted that the free market system has worked very well in the United States.  That system needs to be allowed to work, paying farmers fairly for what they produce, be it forage or livestock.

Many of the other symposia and break-out sessions at the conference featured both producers and researchers discussing topics ranging from nutrition to risk management.

The conference returns to Kentucky January 7-9, 2013, scheduled for the Marriott Cincinnati at River Center in Covington.


(Hear my interview with Dr. Smith on Food and Farm  http://www.feedstuffsfoodlink.com/Media/PodcastItems/segment%201%20-%20Dr.%20Ray%20Smith,%20American%20Forage%20and%20Grassland%20Council.mp3 Food and Farm is heard each Friday at noon EST on America’s Web Radio )


About raybowman

church of Christ elder, farmer, grandad, agriculture writer and broadcaster

Posted on January 18, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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