Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)


June 10, 2014

Field day

Native grass is still a viable crop, experts say

EAST FORK — When Danny Blevins looks out at the waving grass on the hill near his farmhouse, he sees something that belongs there.

His five acres of switchgrass, at this time of year about 2 feet high, its verdant blades thick and lush with nutrients, is as much a part of the Blevins farm as the Blevins family itself, which has lived there and worked the land for a century.

Blevins planted the grass six years ago, but in a sense it was more like a homecoming. Switchgrass is native to Kentucky and when Blevins imagines the same hillside in pioneer days, he sees a mental picture not much different, aside from the electric fence surrounding the plot.

“This is what it was like,” he says. “This grass wants to survive. It’s a native grass. It wants to be here.”

Blevins wants other farmers and rural landowners to consider planting switchgrass and so do his associates at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture and the UK Agricultural Extension Service, who joined him Tuesday for a field-day presentation about the grass.

Agriculture experts like the grass for its versatility and growability. It can be used for fuel, forage or hay. A perennial, it comes back year after year and it thrives on marginal land.

Blevins was one of 20 Kentucky farmers who planted his crop in 2008 as part of a three-year, grant-assisted pilot project to test its potential as a biofuel. During the study, the farmers sold their switchgrass harvest to the East Kentucky Power Cooperative, which burned the grass for fuel at its Maysville power plant.

Its biofuel market potential was based what was then considered the likelihood of state regulations limiting use of coal. However, currently there are no state mandates and since the grass would cost twice as much to burn as coal, there is no power company demand, according to UK forage extension specialist Ray Smith.

But that leaves multiple other uses. Blevins can cut his crop for hay or pasture his cattle in the plot. With proper management it can last for years. It is a high-quality feed for cattle, Smith said.

The grass can benefit property owners who don’t have livestock to feed and aren’t looking for a cash crop because it provides effective wildlife habitat, said Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Department biologist Zak Danks. Its length and composition makes it ideal cover for small game like rabbits and quail, and during much of the season it would be long enough for deer to hide, Danks said.

The grass can be harvested multiple times per season up through late autumn. Late cuttings have less nutritional value, but can be used for animal bedding and other nonnutritive purposes.

The Blevins plot covers a moderately steep hill that over the years has lost much of its fertility from erosion and overgrazing. Further, the year he planted it, some of Blevins’ cattle strayed inside the fence and cropped the new grass nearly to ground level.

The grass survived that and a subsequent severe drought, and has thrived ever since. That is an impressive record, according to UK agronomy specialist Thomas Keene. “If we can grow it here, on this farm, on this hill, we can grow it anywhere,” Keene said.

That is important because farmers can plant the grass on land they don’t want to use for their other cash crops. Its deep roots stabilize soil and over time make the soil healthier.

It also pulls carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the air, which benefits the environment.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.

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