Experts chew over biofuel proposal

Land management experts have warned that the process might ruin prairies.

Allison Wickler

While University research supports developing clean biofuels from prairie grasses, some say other factors should be considered in the idea’s early stages.

In a December issue of Science magazine, University researchers presented their idea of an effective fuel source.

Peter Holter, chief operating officer of Holistic Management International, a nonprofit organization whose work involves improving land health and productivity, said prairie grass biofuel is promising, but advocates holistic landmanagement – using animal grazing to improve prairie land quality and increase grass yield.

Holter said he is concerned that land management for prairie grasses will become overly mechanized and dependent on chemicals, like producing ethanol from corn has become.

A Montana State University study showed an 85 percent increase in new seedlings on land where holistic management was used, as well as increased water infiltration and decreased erosion, Holter said.

“If we were to simply grow grass like we grew corn,” he said, “you’d probably find that that’s not sustainable.”

While this theory deviates slightly from the first study, the original researchers said they are on a similar path.

Jason Hill, co-author of a University study on the effectiveness of using prairie grasses to produce biofuel, said he and others in the department of ecology are sensitive to the land management issue.

He said the study advocates low input of fertilizers and other chemicals into the soil, unlike current farming practices.

The prairie grasses studied require no nitrogen to sustain growth, while corn crops, which are currently harvested to produce biofuel, require 148 kilograms per hectare of nitrogen, he said.

Hill and other researchers hope re-establishing prairies will actually help restore the land to a more natural state.

“What we’re advocating is a very gentle thing for the land in many ways,” he said. “We’re actually after the same thing.”

University agronomy professor Craig Sheaffer said researchers still need to address some questions regarding biofuel systems, and animal grazing on the land is one of them.

While grazing could benefit both farmers and the land, currently there isn’t concrete documentation, he said.

“I’d be careful about saying that it’s critical that we graze these lands,” he said.

Sheaffer said if animals graze land too heavily during the summer they might exhaust the supply of grasses for biofuel production.

However, he said having animals on prairie land can recycle nutrients and aerate the soil.

While using grasses for biofuel is a new idea, Holter said he wants to ensure farmers and researchers focus on the best way to sustain the prairie resource.

“We think it’s a good idea,” he said, “and we’re just looking at the how.”