What is Miscanthus?
Giant miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus) is a sterile hybrid perennial warm-season grass that grows relatively fast on less-than-ideal soils and can be used either as a biofuel or to make bio-based products. This grass, as with many grasses, grows very well in Ashtabula County. Currently Aloterra Energy (http://www.aloterrallc.com/) is the major grower of miscanthus in the United States and has nearly 4,000 acres growing under contract with landowners in Northeast Ohio and Northwest Pennsylvania. Stands are expected to last 15 to 20 years, depending on management. The planting of this acreage was spurred on by NE OH/NW PA being chosen by the United States Department of Agriculture as a BCAP (Biomass Crop Assistance Program) project area in the summer 2011 to encourage the planting of renewable biomass crops. The BCAP was re-authorized in the summer of 2015.
What is its potential for Northeast Ohio & Northwest Pennsylvania?
There is great potential for Miscanthus in Northeast Ohio for a variety of reasons. The major competitive advantage is the potential acreage available for production. Miscanthus will grow on marginal soils thus allowing for fallow and marginal acres in NE Ohio to be placed in production. Another advantage is that Northeast Ohio was chosen by the United States Department of Agriculture as a BCAP (Biomass Crop Assistance Program) project area on June 15, 2011. This program provided federal benefits to farmers who transition part of their farm acreage to miscanthus production. This program in Northeast Ohio is conducted by the Farm Service Agency located in Orwell, Ohio (440-437-6330).
What are the Limitations/Obstacles?
As with any new crop, there will be a learning curve for farmers who will begin raising Miscanthus in Northeast Ohio. One obstacle is Miscanthus acreage is planted through the use of rhizomes which requires greater expertise during planting (planting, weed control, and water availability). Another limitation is the typical harvest window for Miscanthus is after a fall killing frost and before the emergence of the new shoots in the spring. Thus the producer will need to work around the winter weather found in the Northeast Ohio snow belt.
Additional questions have been raised on the invasive nature of Miscanthus giganteus. Research from Europe has shown the rhizome structure of giant miscanthus spreads very slowly (see eXtension link below), thus minimizing vegetative spread. The oldest research stands in Europe were planted in the late 1980s and have only moved approximately 3 feet from their original location. The BCAP rules also require field buffers for all production acreage.
How is Miscanthus Harvested?
Unlike, traditional agronomic crops which are harvested in the fall, miscanthus must be harvested in winter during its dormancy period which ranges from after a hard-killing frost in the fall (could be in late November) and before the emergence of the new shoots in the spring (which is typically in early May). The plant needs to have had time to send nutrients down to the root system in the fall to spur the next year’s growth. Harvesting in the winter, especially in snow-belt, conditions can prove to be a challenge. Click here to access the Miscanthus Harvest Article (February 2016).
What Happens to the Miscanthus after Harvest?
There are two main products being produced from the miscanthus. Aloterra, in cooperation with foodservice ware innovator, World Centric, have developed a new line of certified compostable foodservice ware made from Miscanthus plant fiber. The line is designed to displace similar products made from foam and plastic, which create millions of tons of waste each year. This product is made in the Ashtabula Township plant.
The second product being made by Aloterra is MxG Natural Absorbents™ which has a wide range applications including spill management of water, hydrocarbons, and automotive fluids and even sludge solidification applications. The product is safe, clean, and will dissolve back into the soil within days of application or may be landfilled or incinerated in accordance with federal, state, and local requirements.
Is there Ohio Researched Based Information?
A research plot is also in the developmental stages to be planted at the O.A.R.D.C. (Ohio Agricultural Research & Development Center) Ashtabula Research Station in Kingsville, Ohio in either 2011 or 2012 to test Miscanthus under local conditions in Northeast Ohio).
The Ohio Seed Improvement Association has also completed research on Miscanthus production. They have also developed with Aloterra Energy a custom Quality Assurance third party program for Miscanthus giganteus.
Internet Resources on Miscanthus
This factsheet is an excellent primer for those interested in learning the basics about miscanthus grass.
This factsheet goes into detail on the associated costs (both fixed and variable) for growing miscanthus grass.
This web site has been developed and is maintained by eXtension (national collaboration for Extension Services across the US). This web site is frequently updated and provides information on miscanthus biology, production and agronomic information (field preparation, planting, pest control, fertility, harvesting), potential yields, production challenges (propagation, overwinter survival, estimated production cost) and environmental/sustainability issues.