Sustainability of perennial bioenergy crops on marginal soils

Project Overview

Sustainability of Perennial Grass Bioenergy Crops on Marginal New York Soils

Bioenergy production in the Northeast will primarily need to use idled marginal lands to avoid competition for prime farmlands. This team explores, which perennial bioenergy crop varieties can flourish on poorly drained soils or with other challenging soil conditions not suitable for food crops, and how to improve yield under these conditions.

Healthy soil is the core of a sustainable bioenergy system. Bioenergy production in New York and the Northeast will primarily need to use idled marginal lands to avoid competition for prime farmlands. Second generation bioenergy crops like perennial grasses and willow are less sensitive to recurring wetness and other problems these lands present. These crops also provide more net energy returns on lower inputs. However, their adaptation, performance and environmental impacts on marginal soils of New York are not yet well defined.

This research takes advantage of an experiment site planted in 2011 on wetness-prone marginal soils. Sampling along natural soil moisture gradients allowed the team to study the effects of crop and soil moisture status on yields, soil carbon and other soil health parameters. In addition to continued monitoring of earlier switchgrass plantings, this project allowed the team to begin testing of hybrid giant miscanthus (var. Illinois), a sterile warm-season grass emerging as a high-yielding feedstock which has been given little attention in New York.

The Impacts

Initial grass sod plowdown in 2011 resulted in the loss of soil carbon and organic matter that persisted through 2016. By 2016, the soil carbon levels turned around and active carbon levels had recovered to original levels, a promising indicator of soil carbon recovery. Initial and subsequent soil carbon levels remained strongly dependent on wetness. The team continues to monitor the soils as crop yields improve. While miscanthusis was more sensitive than switchgrass at the wettest end of the marginal soil spectrum, under even slightly drier soils it can flourish. Year three data analysis is still underway, but even during year two’s severe drought, the yields of miscanthusin somewhat poorly drained soils were triple those of fallow grassland control plots. The team expects more yield increases as tillering increases the stem densities.

Website: Soil and Water Lab

Principal Investigator

Project Details

  • Funding Source: Hatch
  • Statement Year: 2019
  • Status: Completed project
  • Topics: Bioenergy crops, grasses, sustainability