October 16, 2021

Perennials complement corn, soybean production

URBANA, Ill. — Incorporating perennial grasses not only supports clean water and healthy soils, but also open up market opportunities.

Emily Heaton, University of Illinois professor of regenerative agriculture, discussed perennial grasses and related issues in the recent Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction podcast hosted by Todd Gleason, U of I Extension media communications specialist.

Heaton recently returned to U of I after serving as an assistant professor of agronomy at Iowa State University. She has conducted extensive in-field research on perennial grasses.

While a doctorate student at U of I before going on to Iowa State, Heaton worked with plant biology and crop sciences professor Stephen Long overseeing the first side-by-side trials of miscanthus and switchgrass in the nation.

Here is Heaton’s conversation with Gleason.

Gleason: We already have grasses on the farm in the form of corn and wheat, why then do we need perennial grasses?

Heaton: The way I view kind of a high-functioning Midwestern landscape is it has corn and soybeans complemented by strategically placed plantings of perennials. We know that the way we have corn and soy distributed today that is completely covering our landscape.

Sometimes it’s up to 95% of non-water land area in the Midwest is in row crops. That’s too much to support clean water and healthy soils. We’ve found that the paradigm of farming fence row to fence row is failing in a lot of ways.

But strategically incorporating perennials into the landscape like we used to even just 50 short years ago when there was a little bit more pasture and small grains, those provide complementarities to those corn/soybean systems, so that if water or nutrients leave a field, there’s an actively growing perennial plant nearby that can suck up that water and the nitrogen that’s in it, for example.

Obviously, we’d like to keep our nutrients in the field where the crop can use them, but should they leave, if we plant buffers in intelligent ways around our row crop landscape, it helps the whole landscape operate at a higher level and we can grow an extra crop. We get some perennial biomass that grows during the times of year when corn and soybeans don’t grow and allows us to sell into different markets than we can with corn and soybeans.

Gleason: It’s the economics of this that makes a difference to producers because they’re used to thinking about waterways, maybe some buffer zones. They’re not used to thinking about the ability of using those as a cash crop in some way. There needs to be a marketplace and in order for that to happen.

Heaton: The marketplaces are developing for perennial grasses and they’re developing pretty rapidly right now. Farmers are problem solvers and perennial grasses are just one more tool in the toolbox. What we’ve had really in the last 10 years is an explosion of smaller markets that are now getting quite well established.

The market that I think is the nearest term today is bedding market. Here in central Illinois we have some confinement animal operations, but not a lot of poultry ones. However, there are a lot of poultry operations around the Midwest and particularly in the Mid-Atlantic.

Miscanthus is one plant that I work on. It’s a tall perennial grass that chops up nicely into small pieces that look really similar to woodchips and it grows really well in the Midwest.

Miscanthus chips have been taking the place of woodchips in poultry operations and within turkey and chicken aggregators have found that miscanthus bedding is more absorbent. They can go longer between times of changing the bedding or they can keep changing bedding at the same rate and have healthier outcomes in the house.

So, lower ammonia levels in the house, which is better for both the birds and employees that work there, and then they have found it actually improves the quality of poultries’ feet.

We may not think about it in this country, but chickens’ feet are a valuable commodity in Asia, so it added a whole new product for some poultry producers that they can now sell feet in addition to the meat.

Gleason: Iowa is the nation’s largest producer of turkeys and eggs. What were your experiences there with regards miscanthus and marketing?

Heaton: I’ve been with a miscanthus company, AGgrow Tech, and then Tyson Foods to plant miscanthus around turkey farms in Iowa and it will be used for bedding. But then it will also improve water quality for the local corn and soybean farmers.

So, there it’s part of a vertically integrated operation for some of the big farmers in the area and provides a cheaper, higher quality bedding source and a local bedding source for Tyson. That’s one of those win-win situations.

Now we have people saying, “if you’re using that for turkey bedding and I know you can also grind miscanthus up and make paper products out of it,” we have people saying, “we raise all of the eggs in Iowa, we could also raise the egg cartons.”

So, all of a sudden you start getting the market to layer and vertically integrate quite nicely while also providing ecosystem services like carbon storage and water quality improvement.

Gleason: How does a producer or landowner get involved in perennials?

Heaton: When I talk to anyone who is interested and they have land they either manage or own, the first question is what their goals for that land are. There are a lot of things that we can do, but we want to do the thing that works best for their operation, and that usually looks pretty different for renters compared to owners, and people at different stages of their career or succession planning.

One of the first things you can do whether you rent or own is understand where in your operation you have room for improvement, both economically and environmentally.

Are there places in your field that you farm and you shouldn’t and you know you shouldn’t, but you do it anyway? Maybe they’re difficult areas to work around or, whatever reason, you’re in a hurry or something else. Those might be areas of economic and environmental opportunity to try something different.

I think until you know where you have room to make a different decision, there’s not much point in trying to figure out how to incorporate perennials into your system. It’s something that should be undertaken strategically with a system-wide perspective for your whole operation.

Gleason: What are some of the grass species that could be used in fields such as waterways?

Heaton: Waterways are a place that people are familiar with being grass on the farm. The grass in a waterway performs a very specific function. The role of grass in the waterway is to help the water move.

So, waterway grass needs to lay down, get out of the way for the water, and then survive, and that’s it. That’s the whole job of a waterway grass and it needs to be managed for that purpose.

The grasses that we grow for biomass and for water quality improvement provide a very different function on the landscape. The biomass grasses are stiff stemmed, they don’t lay down, they slow the flow of water. When they do that, the water moves slower and it drops a lot of the stuff that’s in it.

So, if you’re trying to keep soil on the landscape, if you’re trying to keep phosphorous on the landscape, if you’re trying to keep water on the landscape and just letting it peculate through. You think of the times that we have no rain all summer and then some sort of big gully-washer, the stiff stemmed biomass crop or the energy grasses will help the water actually stay on the field and move through slowly.

Now, sometimes you don’t want more water on your field. Oftentimes in the spring we’re trying to get rid of water. Perennial grasses also help water move through the profile better, so their roots are big, their roots are long-lived and go deep so it makes channels in the soil for the water to drain.

And we tend to find that these perennial grasses improve soil organic matter, which improves water management in a field, water-holding capacity, and they improve infiltration. The waterways have their place, but it’s a different place than a biomass crop.

Tom Doran

Tom Doran

Field Editor