A new online calculator can help farmers determine breakeven costs for producing biomass from alternative feedstocks like miscanthus, switchgrass, mixed grasses and corn stover.

“It’s an information dissemination tool,” says Madhu Khanna, the University of Illinois ag economist who developed the Feedstock Cost and Profitability (FCAP) Calculator.

“(It) allows farmers to put in their own parameters. They can customize the costs based on what their current farming operation looks like, what their current returns are on the land that they are thinking about converting, and learn what it would cost to grow an energy crop on it instead.”

The calculator’s initial version includes data for Illinois, Michigan and Oklahoma. Khanna plans to add more states after getting feedback from users. “We looked at poplar, miscanthus, switchgrass, prairie grass, and stover. They behave differently in different parts of the country, so this initial calculator shows the contrast between three very different climate and rainfall regions.”

After selecting baseline crops they’re currently farming, calculator users must provide specific expense, yield and input information. While corn and soybean growers have a wealth of information on standardized application rates and planting techniques, “these bioenergy crops are still very experimental,” Khanna says. “We’re still figuring out what the optimum rate of nitrogen application should be, the timing for harvest, and so on. This is based on a representative set of assumptions using our best knowledge to date.”

The calculator includes costs for converting currently cropped and marginal lands. “Land cost is a significant part of the cost of producing energy crops. One reason for looking at marginal or less-productive cropland is to show that the cost of producing these energy crops is expected to be significantly lower on land that is less productive for growing row crops but could be used productively to grow energy crops.”