Cornstalks and leaves will offer the most return on investment to farmers considering growing cellulosic biofuel crops, according to new research by Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES) scientists.

“For now, corn looks like the cellulosic bioenergy crop of choice,” says Scott Swinton, MAES agricultural, food and resource economics researcher. “Of course that could change with environmental policy that rewards the water-quality and climate-change benefits from perennial crops such as switchgrass, poplar trees and mixed grasses.”

Swinton teamed up with Kurt Thelen, MAES crop and soil scientist, and graduate student Laura James to analyze the economics of growing various crops for cellulosic ethanol. “Many farmers are curious about whether they should be growing crops for cellulosic biofuels,” Swinton says. “They need to know what they can earn for those crops, what the yields will be, and what the costs are to produce crops for biofuels.”

The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), found that corn stover is the most profitable cellulosic biofuel crop in the Great Lakes region, across a range of likely prices. Perennial crops offer more environmental benefits than corn, including lower amounts of greenhouse gases released, improved water quality and better wildlife habitat.

“Having more corn in the landscape does come at a social cost,” Swinton says. “However, without special subsidies, perennial grasses and poplar don't match the profitability of corn unless biomass prices rise to more than $90 a ton.”

The researchers calculated the cellulosic biomass prices and yields for potential energy crops in southern Michigan using price and cost-of-production data from 2006 to 2009 and yield values from published literature. They then and compared those prices and yields to those of corn and corn stover production systems.

Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) researchers are testing a variety of crops to evaluate yields under field conditions at sites in Wisconsin and Michigan, Swinton says. Results from these experiments will enable researchers to update and evaluate results from the current study. The GLBRC, funded by DOE, is a partnership between MSU and the University of Wisconsin-Madison aimed at solving some of the most complex problems in converting natural materials to energy.

Swinton, James and MSU Extension educator Dennis Pennington also have written a new bulletin, “Profitability of Converting to Biofuel Crops” (#E-3084).