Prairie Lands Biomass LLC is a cooperative group of switchgrass growers investigating alternative products made from switchgrass. The group is a leading partner in the Chariton Valley Biomass Project, which is evaluating switchgrass as a renewable energy source, as well as an alternative to row crop on marginal land in southern Iowa. In addition to providing local environmental benefits, growing switchgrass as an alternative to row cropping could provide economic benefit to local farmers. Switchgrass grown as an energy crop on highly erodible land or CRP land can be more beneficial to farmers than row cropping.
Jim Hall, a member of Prairie Lands Biomass LLC, found a profitable solution when his Crop Reserve Program (CRP) contract was about to expire. For the past ten years he has maintained 180 acres of switchgrass to satisfy his CRP contract. As with many producers, he was faced with what to do with the land once the contract expired. He could either convert the acres back to row crop or find a use for the existing switchgrass. He chose the latter, and now harvests the switchgrass for seed, and sells the remaining straw to be used as mulch for highway construction. Hall says 150 to 200 pounds per acre of pure live seed is considered a good harvest, with the price ranging from four to five dollars per pound. Moisture content of ten percent or less is recommended. Our seed had between eight and ten percent, he says. After harvesting the seed, the remaining straw is baled. The switchgrass straw sells for $45 per ton, with an acre of switchgrass producing around three and a half tons per acre. Hall sold his switchgrass straw to Jim Leer of Leer Tiling and Construction in Keswick, Iowa. The straw was contracted to be used for mulch on 117 acres of highway construction on County Line road T180. Leer says, the switchgrass is applied according to Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations regarding native grasses, which is two tons per acre. He added that cereal straw is applied at the rate of one and a half tons per acre, and costs $60 a ton. Leer also applied switchgrass mulch on a small segment of Highway 149 south of Sigourney.
For Hall, the switchgrass opportunity couldn't have come at a better time not only for his wife Cheryl and him, but for his son, Derek, who is in his second year of Farm Management studies at Muscatine Community College. The time was right to help Derek get a start in farming, Hall says. The use of switchgrass straw as mulch is also good news for other producers looking for income possibilities for their CRP acres. Hall credits his knowledge of switchgrass potential to his involvement with Prairie Lands Biomass LLC.
The ultimate goal of the Chariton Valley Biomass Project is to create a commercially operating business to sell up to 200,000 tons per year of switchgrass to Alliant Energy as fuel for the Ottumwa Generating Station (OGS) in Chillicothe, IA. If economic conditions allow project partners to pay farmers $45 per ton for the switchgrass, the project would result in up to $9 million of combined income for local farmers. The locally-grown switchgrass fuel would replace up to 5 percent of the coal used as fuel at OGS. Alliant Energy purchases the coal for OGS from out-of-state suppliers.