Location: Forage Seed and Cereal Research2010 Annual Report
1. Ash from combustion of grass straw biofeedstock used as a soil amendment. Biochar is a byproduct of on-farm gasification of post-seed harvest grass seed crop straw residues during the production of bioenergy. Utilized as a soil amendment, biochar might have added value to the farm enterprise by returning macro- and micronutrients removed with straw harvest back to the production field. ARS scientists in Corvallis, OR, determined that grass biochar contains potassium and other minerals used by plants and could be returned to the soil as a soil amendment without harming plant growth. If implemented on-farm, these amendments would be a value-added recycling of useful minerals critical for healthy crop growth and reduce fertilizer inputs.
2. The role of voles in improving soil quality. Voles are well-known crop pests, especially when peak populations are present, but their role in soil fertility and impacts on agricultural sustainability are far less understood. It could be that vole activity, although destructive at times, may have underlying benefits that are overlooked with regards to long-term agricultural sustainability and soil health. ARS scientists in Corvallis, OR, found that vole belowground burrowing activity significantly enhanced soil nitrogen, soil moisture, soil organic matter, and other important plant nutrients, such as potassium. Like the vole’s distant relatives the gophers, voles have profound effects on soil chemistry and structure that impact ecosystem services at the landscape scale that have not been considered when viewing long-term agricultural sustainability.
3. Straw distribution defines optimum biofuel conversion sites. Development of a sustainable cellulose-based biofuel industry is currently struggling with questions of which of the evolving technologies to use, what size plants to build, and how to minimize costs of straw collection and transportation. Based on remote sensing of grass seed and cereal production across the Pacific Northwest, ARS scientists in Corvallis, OR identified optimal locations for hypothetical plants operating at three contrasting scales using an iterative siting process that located each new plant at the lowest transportation cost position for utilizing straw that had not already been assigned to previously sited plants. At all scales of operation, the area required to supply straw increased linearly with plant size for the first 80 to 90% of the potential sites, with required collection distances doubling from the first 10% to 60% of the potential industry. The more uniform distribution of lower transport cost sites across all production regions for the smallest-sized (farm-scale) plants along with the shorter collection distances (lower transport costs) for this scale indicates the likelihood that farm profitability will be optimized by continued efforts to develop the necessary farm-scale technology.