LSU AgCenter studying switchgrass as biofuel feedstock

An LSU AgCenter forestry researcher is looking at a fast-growing plant called switchgrass as a potential biofuel feedstock.

Switchgrass needs little fertilizer and can tolerate drought and floods, Michael Blazier said — and on land left open because soybeans did poorly there, one application of fertilizer yielded up to 10 tons of grass per acre.

“Switchgrass is native to nearly the entirety of North America. In Louisiana, it is native to the Cajun prairie ecosystem,” Blazier said. He’s been growing switchgrass among pine trees at the LSU AgCenter Hill Farm Research Station near Homer in Claiborne Parish to see whether landowners could earn money from switchgrass before trees are ready for lumbering.

Near Archibald in Richland Parish, he and an Arkansas forest ecologist are studying switchgrass grown together with eastern cottonwood trees, which also are being studied as possible biofuel feedstock.

Hal Liechty, a forest ecologist and hydrologist at the University of Arkansas-Monticello and the University of Arkansas’s Division of Agriculture, is looking at nutrients in switchgrass and cottonwood trees compared with traditional row crops.

“Nutrient retention is a problem in the lower Mississippi River Valley,” Liechty said. “One of the things we see with the bioenergy crops that we’re looking at, cottonwood and switchgrass is they are really good at retaining nutrients.”

Switchgrass stores carbon in its roots. Increasing carbon in the soil can potentially improve soil quality and crop productivity.

Liechty is looking at whether the plants hold enough carbon to qualify landowners for carbon credits.