Improving grazing techniques and growing high yielding environmentally safe cellulosic energy crops provide us with better food security, environmental security and energy security.
The grasslands of the U.S are a precious resource. For the most part they have been converted to annual cropland that produces cereal grains, feed grains and oil seeds. Converting some annual cropland back to high yielding, environmentally benign perennial grasses suitable for conversion to food, feed and energy, makes sense in this era of erratic and unpredictable fossil carbon prices and concern about the supply, price and quality of food. Fewer acres are required because grasses produce much more biomass per acre than corn or soybeans. Cultivating high yielding perennial grasses for energy will decelerate the use of corn and soybeans for energy meaning increased food stock supplies.
Fresh water for our growing population is an important issue even in areas that have traditionally not worried. A thick healthy vegetative cover protects soil from beating rain. In many Midwestern watersheds, about 20% of eroded soil ends up in a body of water. Siltation of streams, lakes and reservoirs compromises both urban water supplies and wildlife habitat. Agricultural grasslands serve as a surrogate habitat for many native prairie species. Evidence suggests that many grassland birds can nest successfully in grassland managed for energy crops.
North American grasslands evolved in a complex relationship of climate, soil, plants and animals over tens of thousands of years. Patterns and processes inherent in the ecosystem caused large herbivores like elk and bison, to eat and then move on, giving plants time to rest and rejuvenate. Rest – rotational grazing sometimes called Management Intensive Grazing (MIG) attempts to mimic this ancient process. Beef cows are the predominant large herbivore on today’s grasslands. Beef from these systems such as marketed by Tallgrass Beef is of exceptional quality.
Growing our own energy has significant security advantages. Selecting high yielding but low environmental impact energy crops is important to maximize the return from the land. Public policy and market forces will drive decisions by farmers and ranchers. Research indicates if about 25% of Illinois’ tillable acres were used to grow the Illinois clone of Miscanthus as a renewable energy source in Illinois, enough cellulose would be produced to switch Illinois from Powder River Basin coal for electrical generation AND still have enough biomass to produce about 80% of the state’s liquid transportation fuel. (Heaton et al., 2004 )