University of Illinois researchers report that several herbicides used on corn also have good selectivity to the potential biofuel feedstock Giant Miscanthus. That opens the door to much faster cultivation adoption through known farm management practices.  Weeds are the nemesis for every crop and being able to control them is a first order management practice.

Miscanthus and Switchgrass Side by Side. Click image for more info.

The situation today is there are no herbicides currently labeled for use in miscanthus.  Eric Anderson, an instructor of bioenergy for the Center of Advanced BioEnergy Research at the University of Illinois said, “Our research shows that several herbicides used on corn are also safe on this rhizomatous grass.”

Anderson’s research showed that miscanthus does not compete well with weeds during establishment, especially early emerging weeds.  Miscanthus is a sterile plant and has to be started by vegetative propagation, or planting rhizomes instead of seeds. This can be a very costly investment and requires a 1- to 3 -year establishment period.  That period is also a grand opening for weeds to start and compete for soil, water and sunlight resources.

Anderson expands with, “There’s a great cost in establishing Giant Miscanthus. It’s important to protect this investment, especially if it goes commercial. When weeds out compete Giant Miscanthus, the result is stunted growth and lack of tillering. Basically, you are risking the crop’s ability to survive over winter.”  That will put off or stop any chance that Miscanthus would be farmed in commercial quantity.

The weed control products and experience from corn comes with unanswered questions.  The Center of Advanced BioEnergy Research screened 16 post-emergence herbicides and 6 pre-emergence herbicides in a greenhouse setting. Several herbicides, particularly those with significant activity on grass species, caused plant injury ranging from 6 to 71 percent and/or reduced miscanthus dry mass by 33 to 78 percent.  Anderson said it’s more difficult to kill a grass weed in a grass crop such as miscanthus. Identifying herbicides that don’t hurt its yield or growth and maturity also posed challenges for researchers.

Then Anderson and his team narrowed these herbicides down to the safest options and evaluated them in field trials replicated over two years. Field experiments confirmed the greenhouse experiments. Pre-emergence herbicides and herbicides with broadleaf-specific activity generally did not produce significant injury or reduce aboveground biomass while herbicides with considerable grass activity tended to cause injury ranging from 22 to 25 percent and reduce biomass by 69 to 78 percent.  “I think the key is finding pre-emergence herbicides that you can get in early to take care of weed problems in Giant Miscanthus,” Anderson said.

This could work quite well if the weather cooperates.  Late season grass weeds will still pose a risk. Anderson said, “We discovered the anecdotes were true for the most part. Herbicides that are safe to use on corn demonstrate good selectivity to Giant Miscanthus.”

The big news is atrazine is one of the herbicides that proved safe.  Used per instructions atrazine is a great control tool for the corn crop worldwide and is very low cost.

Anderson continues, “The good news is that atrazine is completely safe pre- or post-emergence. Atrazine is cheap and relatively effective. One of the major reasons we are continuing to screen more herbicides is to find additional effective options if atrazine utilization were limited in areas where Giant Miscanthus might be grown.”

The USDA must approve a herbicide use before lawful sales can commence for that use.  Today with no approved label use for herbicides on miscanthus for biofuel production, Anderson’s research opens the door and sets the foundation for either growers to begin an IR-4 specialty product process filing or for a major chemical company to add it to their label in the future.  With production getting going in the southeast U.S. it may be that labeled use might not be so far away.

This kind of agronomic information is what’s needed for investment in production to continue.  Having a major management practice problem like weed control so much closer to a solution reduces risks to investment and commitments for land use.  Information from soil fertility to weeds and material handling are getting worked out.

University of Illinois scientists working in Japan recently reported the first natural occurrence in several decades of miscanthus hybrid plants there. Miscanthus is a sterile triploid (three sets of chromosomes) formed by a natural cross of M. sacchariflorus and M. sinensis. Because it’s sterile, only vegetative division can propagate miscanthus, which is somewhat more difficult than propagating by seed.  With only one variety there are certainly risks involved such as diseases or pests causing widespread establishment problems or yield losses.  Finding more natural varieties will increase the genetic base for hybridization and plant self defense improvements.  These steps are underway now as well.

Miscanthus New Variety Discovered. Click image for more info.

There is a huge amount of territory that can be dedicated to crops like miscanthus and switchgrass beyond the primary corn, soy wheat and rice areas.

As Al Fin noted Monday, ethanol can be an oil extender beyond gasoline.  Exporting ethanol is another value added agricultural export product that would balance the oil import bill.  It’s another way to stimulate the U.S. economy.  It’s looking to be getting closer to being a sure thing.


3 Comments so far

  1. willG on January 12, 2011 9:58 AM

    Why are we falling right into Big Oil`s plan? Ethanol from corn or cellulose or biofuel or algae of all types will not get us past peak. For the record if we had to go bio, sugarcane is I believe 8? times more productive, but we do not.
    The and GreenNH3 guys in Canada have a perfect and low cost green sustainable scalable fuel which does not use food and can be made every day of the year forever. Why are we looking for a different technology until we put this GreenNH3 into full use? We want to buy a machine but they are not in production yet.(they need finance)
    Big Oil wants us to keep trying all these bio things (the more the better for them) and subsidizing them knowing they will never work out, but you will notice they don’t mention or subsidize GreenNH3.
    Please give it some thought, and someone who knows how to move a technology forward please get in touch with Whether the climate is heating or cooling or not changing we know peak is here (Scientific American 2014)so unless we support these ready technologies with a chance Big Oil wins.

  2. Matt Musson on January 12, 2011 11:55 AM

    But, why aren’t we pursuing Organic Miscanthus? I can’t believe you want me to put something contaminated with chemicals into my car’s gas tank!! The next thing you know someone is going to come out with a dreaded GM Miscanthus!

    /S (Sarcasm off)

  3. J.P. Katigbak on January 13, 2011 9:37 PM

    I still really suspect that environmentalism is one of the main causes of concern among us ordinary people around the globe. Why did the misanthropist wants to pursue what Mr. Matt Musson considers “Organic Miscantus”?

    Sadly, there would be no choice but to use the organic kind of Miscanthus that is believed to have a much more energy density without any chemical contaminants into the motor vehicle’s fuel tank. Is that really some kind of a quack or something else?

    What about a Miscanthus that is genetically modified? Sadly, the misanthropical oppossition to genetically-modified Miscanthus-based biofuels could proceed without any valid criticism of various sorts of what I call “anti-growth measures”.

    It’s bad news bears, I say.

    When it is time to act on the unintended effects of a broad philosopical and ideological phenomenon called “growth skepticism”, there should act on the misanthropical arguments that are emboldening without much critical (and honest) inquiry. As a result, excessive politicking is the result from this kind of growth skepticism at any time, any place.

    Now be warned about that kind of misanthropical phenomenon, and see for yourself in real-life circumstances please, thank you.

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