A recently completed, four-year-long pilot study on using switchgrass as an alternative energy source in northeastern Kentucky was successful on a variety of fronts, says University of Kentucky hay marketing specialist Tom Keene.
“The project helped answer questions people had about switchgrass,” he says. “On the farmer side, producers learned a lot about getting the crop established, controlling weeds, baling, storing and transporting. The power plant learned about what it will take to economically get switchgrass to the plant, keep it in storage and incorporate it into its system. We basically just scratched the surface, but it’s a very good start.”
Each of the 20 producers involved grew five acres of switchgrass for the project. The East Kentucky Power Cooperative’s (EKPC) Spurlock Station near Maysville burned the switchgrass along with coal to produce electricity.
Tom Malone, Augusta, planted his first switchgrass for the project in 2007. “It was a historic drought year here,” he says. “When I went to clip it off, the stand was very sparse. I remember wondering what I had gotten myself into. But then it came back that second season. And last year we had a yield of around 6 tons/acre. It might have been even better, but we had one of the driest harvest seasons ever.”
The project has been an eye-opener for area producers, Malone says. “Now we know that this is a viable crop that can be established in our area, and we have a lot better understanding of the management practices that need to be in place to make it work here.”
A lingering question for project producers is what to do with their switchgrass plots now that the project is completed. Keene’s hopeful that EKPC will want to continue utilizing switchgrass on some level. “There’s nothing firm on the table at this point,” he says. “But talks are in progress.”
While Malone would like to see the relationship between growers and the power company continue, he says there could be other marketing options. For example, he notes, a local agriculture-industrial development group is trying to secure grant funding for a feasibility study on using switchgrass to fuel pellet stoves used by commercial businesses and homeowners.
“There appears to be a growing market for that kind of thing in many parts of the country. It would take awhile to get a business plan in place, buy the equipment and so on, but it’s definitely worth looking into.”
Whether or not those options pan out, Malone’s also considering taking an early cutting of switchgrass this year to use as feed for his cow-calf herd. “It’s a native warm-season grass that gives you some flexibility. According to some of the research I’ve seen, it can have a nutrient value that’s equal to or even better than fescue or timothy.”