Oklahoma seeds 1,000 acres of switchgrass

By Susanne Retka Schill
By June 1, grass seeders were expected to have planted more than 1,100 acres of switchgrass in Oklahoma, 1,000 of it in a single track near Guyman in the central panhandle region.

"We're pretty excited," said Adam Calaway, director of public relations at Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation Inc., which will manage the demonstration. "It's the largest planting of switchgrass anyplace in the world. In several years, it will be one of many, but in the meantime, it will provide us with a lot of good, valuable information."

The production-scale demonstration fields of switchgrass were instigated by the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center, an initiative aimed at launching a statewide biofuels industry with the help of the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, a nonprofit plant science research institute with extensive experience in forage improvement. Approximately half of the acreage will be irrigated, allowing comparisons of four switchgrass varieties grown in irrigated and dry-land conditions. Steve Rhines, foundation vice president and general counsel, said expected yields for mature switchgrass stands in that region are three to four tons per acre under dry-land conditions and an estimated five to six tons per acre under irrigation. "Because there's been so little switchgrass grown for production, we don't know the full yield potential," he admitted. The experience with irrigation will be valuable, he added, as declining water tables and increasing energy costs make irrigated corn less desirable. "We think as time goes on, switchgrass could make a nice crop to fill the void," he said. "We think it will take two-thirds of the water, but that's a research project, too."

The Guymon site is being leased from Hitch Enterprises Inc., a family-owned cattle, pork and agricultural operation. The switchgrass fields are located less than 35 miles from Hugoton, Kan., where Abengoa Bioenergy New Technologies is constructing a 13 MMgy cellulosic ethanol plant. California-based Ceres Inc. will be providing seed and agronomic direction, and Idaho National Laboratory will develop the harvest and processing system in coordination with Abengoa Bioenergy.