Like many of his extension counterparts around the country, University of Kentucky forage specialist Ray Smith has been getting lots of phone calls in recent months from producers who want to know if they should plant switchgrass as a biomass energy crop. His response? “There really isn’t any biomass market right now,” says Smith. “Nobody is paying farmers to grow it.”

Even so, Smith says he encourages some callers to consider planting switchgrass as a forage crop on a small scale. “It will make a good-quality, not top-quality, hay for a beef cow herd,” says Smith. “You can start out planting just a few acres; I wouldn’t do it with the idea that you’re going to get rich off it or even see a good return right away. Instead, I’d get into it with the idea that you’re going to learn more about what it takes to produce a crop. Then, if a biomass energy market develops in the future, you’ll have some experience growing switchgrass and might be in position to capitalize.”

Smith and his colleagues have been working with a group of 20 northeastern Kentucky producers on a four-year-long switchgrass pilot project. Each of the farmers is growing a 5-acre plot. Seven of the plots were planted in 2007; the remaining 13 were established in 2008. The pilot project is designed to help farmers evaluate options for planting, growing, harvesting, transporting and processing the switchgrass. It’s funded through a grant to the Kentucky Forage and Grassland Council from the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board.

Last month, East Kentucky Power Cooperative burned 70 tons of the switchgrass to generate electrical power at a plant in Mayville, KY. In the test, the switchgrass replaced nearly 2% of the coal the power company normally uses for producing electricity. A co-op representative says the test gave East Kentucky Power valuable information about how burning switchgrass affects the plant’s fuel-delivery systems, boiler operations and emissions. The co-op plans to continue studying the energy potential of switchgrass and could eventually bump up the percentage of switchgrass it uses to 3-10%.

“One of the goals of the project is to help farmers make connections with potential end users, companies that might use switchgrass to produce energy,” says Smith. “Right now, we’re kind of in the chicken or the egg stage of using biomass as a feedstock for energy production. Farmers need to know that there’s going to be a market for switchgrass before they start devoting a lot of time and energy to producing it. Energy companies want to know that there’s going to be a supply of switchgrass available before they start looking for more ways to use it efficiently."

For more information on the Kentucky switchgrass project, contact Smith at 859-257-3358 or raysmith1@uky.edu.

Editor's Note: Interested in producing switchgrass for biomass energy? What do you see as the potential upsides and downside? Tell us what you think by filling out and returning the comment form below.