FOCUS ON AGRICULTURE: Perennial biofuel crops lower nitrogen losses

Posted: Jan. 23, 2013 3:54 pm Updated: Feb. 21, 2013 11:15 am


Perennial biofuel crops such as miscanthus have another benefit -- the ability to reduce the escape of nitrogen in the environment.

In a four-year University of Illinois study that compared miscanthus, switchgrass and mixed prairie species to typical corn-corn-soybean rotations, each of the perennial crops was highly efficient at reducing nitrogen losses, with miscanthus having the greatest yield.

"Our results clearly demonstrate that environmental nitrogen fluxes from row-crop agriculture can be greatly reduced after the establishment of perennial biofuel crops," U of I postdoctoral research associate Candice Smith said.

Smith said the ability to reduce the loss of nitrogen into the environment will prove to be greatly beneficial.

"Intensive corn production with larger fertilizer inputs leads to large losses of nitrogen into the environment, both through gas emissions of nitrous oxide and leaching of nitrate to surface waters through tile drainage systems," said Mark David, U of I biogeochemist. "Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas, and nitrate can contaminate drinking water supplies and lead to coastal ocean problems."

The study, funded by the Energy Biosciences Institute, measured harvested biomass and nitrogen, nitrous oxide emissions and nitrate leaching in the mid-soil profile and through tile drainage lines.

Researchers found that perennial crops quickly reduced nitrate leaching in the mid-soil profile as well as from tile lines.

David added that the miscanthus and mixed prairie also had very wide carbon-to-nitrogen ratios in the harvested material -- as much as 257 to 1 for miscanthus.

"Miscanthus efficiently moved nitrogen from leaves to root and rhizome systems after the growing season, where it could be used again the next year," David said.

"Reduced Nitrogen Losses after Conversion of Row Crop Agriculture to Perennial Biofuel Crops" was published in an issue of the Journal of Environmental Quality.


Pork profits

Pork producers have begun the chant "four more months" to see the light of profits from a tunnel of losses.

From the spring of 2012 through the winter of 2013, producers faced average estimated losses of $18 per head, primarily due to high feed prices, according to Purdue University Extension economist Chris Hurt.

"Feed prices reached a summit in the third quarter of 2012 with the peak of the drought," Hurt said. "Estimated total hog production costs shot up $10 per live hundredweight, reaching an estimated $72. Costs last fall and this winter dropped about $4 per hundredweight and are expected to moderate an additional $8 with normal 2013 crop production. By fall that could put estimated costs of production around $60 per hundredweight."

Prices this year are expected to be "somewhat stronger" due to small beef supplies, continued strong pork exports and modestly improving consumer incomes, Hurt said. Losses will continue in the first quarter of 2013 with a return to profitability in late April or early May.

The return of profitable production means some producers will be discussing expansion plans, with feed prices still the biggest threat to profits.

"Poor crops in 2013 could send corn and soybean meal prices to new record highs. Such an outcome would likely extend losses for another year," Hurt said. "Alternatively, normal world yields in 2013 will likely send feed prices lower than current new-crop futures are indicating. Such an event would multiply pork profitability."


-- Compiled by Herald-Whig Staff Writer Deborah Gertz Husar