Although it may be several years before cellulosic ethanol plants start large-scale production, Michael Russelle, soil scientist with the USDA Agriculture Research Service (USDA-ARS), says the potential to use alfalfa as a biomass crop means there could be many benefits on the horizon for hay growers. Cellulosic ethanol production is in the infant stages now; just a few pilot plants are in the early stages of production, Russelle says. Eventually, experts estimate cellulosic biomass could yield at least three times as much ethanol as corn grain does now.

"If alfalfa stems could be used for biomass energy, we could see greatly increased demand for alfalfa because bigger markets would be created," Russelle notes. "We already have an infrastructure for growing alfalfa. We have consultants, seed production and variety development, which we don't have for crops like switchgrass." More demand for alfalfa would create additional benefits for the allied industries that work with hay growers, too, such as nutrient and lime applicators, pest management consultants and custom harvesters.

Russelle points out that biomass production could reduce weather-related stress for hay growers. If the weather isn't good, growers may be able to shift fields from one type of market to another. "So if it is a really wet spring, you could just wait a few weeks for a dry spell before harvesting without worrying if you are going to have dairy-quality hay," he says. "You aren't going to make as much money with biomass as you might with dairy-quality hay, but hay production might become more flexible."

Alfalfa would not have to be harvested as often to meet biomass stem yield requirements. "For example, in Minnesota the first conventional harvest typically occurs near the end of May, and the second harvest happens close to July 4," Russelle says. "For biomass alfalfa we would be harvesting near the third week of June, on average."

Russelle says greatly increased alfalfa acreage could provide a number of natural-resource-based benefits to the public, too. He will be talking more about the benefits of using alfalfa as a green biomass alternative during a Feb. 4 presentation at the National Alfalfa Symposium. Sponsored by Hay & Forage Grower and the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association, the symposium will take place Feb. 4-5 at the Ramada Inn and Conference Center in Kearney, NE, just prior to the Mid-America Alfalfa Expo.

For more details on the symposium schedule or to register at the early bird fee of $100/person, visit alfalfasymposium.com. For information on the expo, visit alfalfaexpo.com/.