An ambitious, University based, USDA sponsored research project investigating
the sustainable production and distribution of bioenergy and
bioproducts for the central U.S.

CenUSA releases first-ever decision support tool for switchgrass

Above: Chad Hart is a professor of
economics and Iowa State University
By Charlie O’Brien

With thousands of acres of unprofitable marginal land in the Midwest occupied by corn and soybeans, second-generation bioenergy researchers have been searching for ways to sway farmers’ planting decisions. But now CenUSA Bioenergy researchers have released a new economic tool to help farmers pencil out their planting decisions.

Chad Hart, a CenUSA project collaborator and Iowa State University economics professor, believes that his new decision support tool, a computer-based program that is the first decision support tool designed for switchgrass usage, will help farmers when it comes to making the complex planting decision.

The tool, which is available on the CenUSA and Iowa State University eXtension website, compares the costs of producing two perennial grasses; ‘Liberty’ switchgrass, a high-yielding native grass developed by CenUSA researchers, and miscanthus, a warm-season Asian grass. Hart stated that a tool like he and his team created, which they expect to be continuously updated, is imperative to the process of educating farmers about different production practices.

“We looked at decision tools farmers already used for corn and soybeans, and laid it out in a similar format as them,” Hart said. “It features cost in all of the production steps, including costs of land preparation, fertilization and harvesting technology. Ultimately we want to allow producers to see all variables and inputs for when they are making a planting decision.”

Jill Euken, CenUSA co-project director for Extension and Outreach and deputy director of the Iowa State University Bioeconomy Institute, pointed out that first time users of the decision support tool might be concerned with the initial cost of planting switchgrass. Euken stated that users need to think about the process from a long-term standpoint, with maintenance costs receding with each year during a 10-year period.

Hart echoed Euken’s words that farmers may see a high initial cost, but that they need to look harder at the costs allocated over a number of years. Hart hopes farmers will find the tool useful in evaluating possibilities and explore alternative biomass crops like switchgrass after viewing the price comparison to corn and soybeans on his decision support tool, especially in relation to yields achieved by row crops on marginal land.

“In the end though it comes down for the producer, ‘I need to make money to stay in it for the long run’. The tool is targeted to addressing potential profitability of biomass,” Hart said.

Euken and Hart highlighted that the launch of this tool is the first step in an operation that will continue to change to stay relevant and as up-to-date as possible to create realistic estimates for farmers. The current tool is based off of research data performed on university research farms that has been collected over three to four years and paired with a few years of production data. The duo plans to collect producer data and feedback to incorporate into the tool as frequently as possible as producers determine innovative ways to control costs.

“We are at the forefront of this industry and we need to determine how we can create an even more efficient product that could transform into a product of great need,” Hart said.

The new decision support tool can be found here: