The potential to harvest switchgrass as a coal substitute could turn into a diamond of an opportunity for custom forage harvesters.

Switchgrass is now being stockpiled for that purpose in south-central Iowa. It's estimated that, before long, 2 million acres of it could be harvested for energy and industrial uses.

There's even more potential from corn stover, although it may take 10 years to see much growth in that area.

The point is, there's growing interest in using biomass for energy and industrial needs. For custom harvesters, that translates into a sizeable potential harvest of corn stover, switchgrass and perhaps other crops, too.

Iowa's Chariton Valley Biomass Project looks promising, says John Sellers, Corydon, IA. He's a switchgrass grower who's president of Prairie Lands Bio-Products, a group working to develop and market switchgrass-based products.

Sellers is convinced the project will show the economic and environmental benefits of using switchgrass with coal for generating electricity.

Once those numbers are in, 20-30 additional generating plants across the nation could follow suit, he says. Each facility might use 50,000-60,000 acres or more of the grass.

The need for a speedy harvest and big-package baling, handling and transportation equipment suggests much of the harvest will be handled by custom crews.

Three-person crews currently involved in the research project can mow, bale and stack the switchgrass from roughly 500 acres in a reasonable time. If it's assumed that a crew could handle 600 acres, making about 6,000 half-ton square bales, each of the 20-30 generating plants would need about 20-30 crews.

One petroleum company anticipates that it someday may change from petroleum-based to plant-based chemicals. It sees potential in residue like corn stover, although it could be a decade before that's reality.

There's great potential for corn stover, says Norm Olson, program manager with the Iowa Energy Center's Biomass Energy Conversion facility at Nevada, IA.

“We're looking at converting various biomass products, largely corn stover, into a number of industrial products, including ethanol and other chemicals,” says Olson. “One company says it can use cornstalks to make nearly everything it's now making from petroleum. It's looking at a 30- to 50-year horizon for phasing out petro-chemicals in favor of renewable biomass-based chemicals.

“We can harvest at least two tons of corn stover per acre without jeopardizing soil conservation efforts,” Olson says. “We're anticipating the market will eventually use stover from 12 million corn acres in Iowa alone. That's 24 million tons, or roughly 48 million bales.”

And then there's the possibility of turning corn stover into paper products. Ron Mells, Des Moines, IA, is in the second phase of a feasibility study to locate such a paper mill somewhere in the Upper Midwest. He projects that a single paper mill could use stover from 100,000 acres, or about 200,000 bales, and says a number of plants could eventually pop up in corn country.

For more on the Iowa Energy Center, go to www.energy.iastate.edu. Or e-mail Olson at nolson@energy.iastate.edu. To check on the Chariton Valley Biomass Project, visit www.cvrcd.org/biomass.htm or e-mail Sellers at jsellrs@grm.net. To learn more about the cornstalk paper project, e-mail Mells at ronmells@earthlink.net.