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ARS Home » Plains Area » Lincoln, Nebraska » Wheat, Sorghum and Forage Research » Research » Research Project #424139

Research Project: Improving bioenergy and forage plants and production systems for the central U.S.

Location: Wheat, Sorghum and Forage Research

2015 Annual Report

The overall objectives of this continuing long-term project are to develop improved perennial grasses, management practices, and technologies for use in grazing lands and biomass energy production systems in the central USA. Over the next five years, the following specific objectives will be addressed. (1) Develop best management practices for Midwest and central Great Plains perennial grass, mixed grass, and grass-legume pastures to increase livestock production, provide biomass feedstocks for bioenergy production, and maintain ecosystem services; (2) Develop new cool- and warm-season grass cultivars and native legume germplasm for Midwest and Great Plains growing conditions; and (3) Identify biomass characteristics that impact conversion efficiency to liquid fuels. Utilize this information to develop improved breeding criteria and improved management practices.

Improved perennial grasses and legumes and associated management practices will be developed for use in the Central Great Plains and Midwest for bioenergy production and grazing when grown on land that is unsuitable or marginal for grain crop production. Perennial plant breeding technologies will be used to develop the improved cultivars. Improved management methods will be developed to fully utilize the genetic potential of the new cultivars by enhancing establishment, yields, and utilization by livestock, and all aspects of biomass energy crop production. Basic molecular biology and biochemistry/physiology information will be developed that will improve the breeding and management products. The project is a continuation of a long-term perennial grass project that has plant materials, management, and basic science studies in various stages of development and completion. Research will be conducted on both C3 (cool-season) and C4 (warm-season) grasses because both are needed in the region to maximize the length of the grazing season. Switchgrass, big bluestem, and indiangrass will be the primary C4 species and will be developed for use in both bioenergy and livestock production systems. Smooth and meadow bromegrass and intermediate, tall, and western wheatgrass will be bred for use in cool-season pastures. Native legumes will be enhanced for use with C4 grasses in biomass production systems. Grass technologies from this research when utilized on 6 million hectares in the Midwest could produce biofuels for 15 million cars. Beef production per hectare from pastures with new cultivars and improved management could be improved by 10 to over 25%.

Progress Report
Objective 1: Bioinformatic analyses are in progress to identify genes that are associated with dormancy in switchgrass seeds. A 3-year bromegrass grazing trial was completed and livestock performance and nutritive value results were summarized. A new smooth bromegrass cultivar named ‘Newell’ was released based on the results of this grazing trial. The fourth year of a warm-season grass grazing trial was initiated and has produced excellent beef cattle gains in both pure stands and mixtures. Year 18 of the long-term switchgrass and no-till corn bioenergy study was initiated. Analysis of nutrient removal is progressing. Objective 2: Polycross nurseries of crosses of advanced experimental strains of six switchgrass, two sand bluestem, and four bromegrass populations established in FY13 were managed, harvested for biomass, and samples processed for quality evaluation. Biomass and seed harvests of smooth bromegrass, intermediate wheatgrass and tall wheatgrass breeding nurseries from previous evaluation years were completed as scheduled. Biochemical changes associated with the onset of winter dormancy in switchgrass were evaluated. DNA and RNA sequence data were collected and will be made available in public databases for use in the breeding and development of lines with enhance bioenergy potential. A model for the metabolic functioning of dormant rhizomes for a northern-adapted switchgrass was developed. Native legume nurseries were used for seed production. Nurseries that provided adequate quantities of seeds for further studies were terminated. Objective 3: Switchgrass plants were significantly damaged by early winter weather in FY14. Plants were collected during FY 15 and are being evaluated.

1. Leaf senescence, especially that of the flag leaf, can be the trigger for aerial senescence of the entire plant in switchgrass. ARS scientists at Lincoln, Nebraska produced detailed molecular and metabolic map of this process. These studies identified key genes that can be manipulated to alter both the onset of leaf senescence in switchgrass as well as the remobilization of nutrients from the aerial tissues to the rhizomes. Greater remobilization of nutrients at the end of the growing season can improve plant health and sustainability of producing switchgrass biomass for biofuels.

2. Switchgrass and corn residue can contribute to U.S. energy and environmental goals. ARS scientists in Lincoln, Nebraska collected grain and biomass yield and composition, soil carbon, and production input data to estimate ethanol yield per acre and greenhouse gas emissions from a long-term corn (with and without corn residue harvest) and switchgrass field trial in the western Corn Belt USA. Soil carbon storage in fields planted to corn or switchgrass resulted in large greenhouse gas emission mitigation potential and demonstrated why proper accounting of soil carbon storage will be critical in determining biofuel carbon intensities. Switchgrass, under optimal management, produced higher ethanol yields than the corn grain-only harvests and similar ethanol yields as corn grain with residue removal. Future integration of cellulosic ethanol biorefineries with corn grain ethanol facilities would result in improved energy efficiency for the current corn grain ethanol system.

Review Publications
Arredondo-Peter, R., Moran, J., Sarath, G. 2014. Rice (Oryza) hemoglobins. F1000Research. 3:253. doi:10.12688/f1000research.5530.2..
Mitchell, R., Vogel, K.P. 2015. Grass invasion into switchgrass managed for biomass energy. BioEnergy Research. DOI:10.1007/s12155-015-9656-4.
Vogel, K.P., Mitchell, R., Waldron, B.L., Haferkamp, M.R., Berdahl, J.D., Erickson, G., Klopfenstein, T. 2014. Registration of 'Newell' Smooth Bromegrass. Journal of Plant Registrations. 9:35-40.
Moore, K., Birrell, S., Brown, R., Casler, M.D., Mitchell, R. 2014. Midwest vision for sustainable fuel production. Biofuels. 5:(6)687-702.
Porter, P., Mitchell, R., Moore, K.J. 2015. Reducing hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico – an alternative approach. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 70(3):63A-68A. 2015.
Ramm, C., Wachholtz, M., Amundsen, K., Donze-Reiner, T., Heng-Moss, T., Twigg, P., Palmer, N.A., Sarath, G., Baxendal, F. 2014. Transcriptional profiling of resistant and susceptible buffalograsses in response to Blissus occiduus (Hemiptera: Blissidae) feeding. Journal of Economic Entomology. 108: 1354-1362.
Prochaska, T., Donze-Reiner, T., Palmer, N.A., Heng-Moss, T.M., Hunt, T., Sarath, G. 2015. Transcriptional responses of tolerant and susceptible soybeans to soybean aphid (Aphis glycines Matsumura) herbivory. Arthropod-Plant Interactions. 9:347-359.
Ramm, C., Wayadnade, A., Baird, L., Nandakumar, R., Madayiputhiya, N., Amundsen, K., Donze, T., Baxendale, F., Sarath, G., Heng-Moss, T. 2015. Morphology and proteome characterization of the salivary glands of the western chinch bug, Blissus occiduus (Hemiptera: Blissidae). Journal of Economic Entomology. Published online June 10, 2015.