Cellulosic Ethanol from a Farmers Perspective Many farmers are realizing that the demand for cellulosic ethanol is at the start of an upward trend. An increasing amount of farm cooperatives are basing their crops off the sales to these ethanol production plants. The increase in production of cellulosic ethanol is making feedstock such as switchgrass realistic. Switchgrass produces about two times more ethanol than corn stover would. If a farmer were to continue rotating corn and soybeans on 70% of their field and produce 20% switchgrass in the remaining space and leave it for 5 years. After those 5 years, the startup time of switchgrass, add an additional 10% switchgrass and decrease corn/soybeans.. This plan of transitioning from corn/soybeans to switchgrass would not only be beneficial to the maximization of farmers profits, but the efficiency in energy production, greenhouse gasses emitted, and also the environment. The farmer’s profit is the essential concept of any agricultural plan. If the farmer does not foresee adequate profits, he simply will not follow through. The average soybean/corn rotation farm (1200 acres) makes $219,000 net income ($182.50 per acre) 6. The average switchgrass farm produces $392.00 per acre, but it can take up to five years after planting for the switchgrass to get to this point. It takes two years in order to clear all surface residue for planting, then at least one year of a lower production level ($49 per acre)7. This is why it wouldn’t be possible for a farmer to entirely convert his or her field from corn/soybean rotation to switchgrass at one time, most farmers could not afford this reduced profit, therefore a gradual plan is put into place in which a farmer could still afford the transition. Average labor time is about 3 hours per acre per year at a 6-ton yield7. If a farmer had 1000 acres of switchgrass, they would log 3000 hours per year. This includes fertilizer application and all production practices up to moving bales off the field. Due to the variation in production systems machine harvesting and packing requires 20 to 30 hours per acre. If a farmer had 1000 acres of corn, they would log 20,000 to 30,000 hours of labor per year. Obviously switchgrass requires much less work for the farmer, and saves money because they have to hire fewer people to work for them. Overall switchgrass is much more profitable for a farmer plus it requires much less work.
In comparison to corn, switchgrass results in 1/100 the soil erosion4. In farming, erosion is very important to control because it can result in the carrying away fertile soil as well as fertilizers, pesticides and other agrochemicals. Unlike corn, switchgrass does not rely on fertilizers to grow and prosper. The plants are able to grow in soils unsuitable for corn to due to its root system which forms an interwoven layer of roots that do not penetrate extremely deep in the soil, but form a layer solely of root tissue just beneath the surface4. Corn requires the addition of inorganic fertilizer, as well as herbicides and insecticides, in order to grow into a mature plant. The application of nitrogen based fertilizer, while benefiting the corn, is a detriment to the environment as it takes 1.5 tons of oil equivalents to make 1 ton of fertilizer3. Corn stover also contains crop nutrients, so when it is harvested, more fertilizer must be added in the following year. There is also an outstanding problem with run-off and its impact on waterways. The location of the Corn Belt in the United States allows for direct transportation of run-off fertilizers down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico which contributes to the problem of the Gulf Dead Zone. Switchgrass has shown as much as 1/8 the nitrogen run-off of corn4. Unlike corn, switchgrass is native to a large amount of the United States (map shown above) and therefore provides excellent nesting and cover for pheasants, quail, and rabbits. The seed provides