Planting Switchgrass Could Improve Soil Quality


Tally up one more reason why planting switchgrass may be a good idea. According to a study conducted by Kristine Nichols, a microbiologist with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory, soils planted with native grasses have significantly higher levels of glomalin, a sugar-protein compound that helps improve soil quality, than soils planted with non-native grasses.

The natural alternative to carbon capture and storage (CCS)
Not only that, glomalin also helps soil retain carbon. Its sticky, threadlike structures, known as hyphae, catch falling sand, silt and other particles that make up soil -- helping to form new soil and store the carbon within.

switchgrass field

Image from Wikimedia Commons
More native grass plots leads to more glomalin
Nichols based her findings on two surveys of grass plots established in the last few decades. She saw a net increase in the amount of glomalin contained within soil planted with warm-season native grasses such as switchgrass and indiangrass. An earlier analysis confirmed her hunch that glomalin could store a large proportion of the carbon found in soils — on average, around 15% but, in some cases, up to 30% — and help improve soil fertility.

Evidence suggests switchgrass could be a strong candidate for cellulosic ethanol
The results of this study, in addition to her previous ones, lead Nichols to think switchgrass and other plain grasses could be ideal candidates for cellulosic ethanol production. In an earlier post, I had described how researchers in Iowa were working on growing mixed prairie grass plots to use in biofuel production:

A study conducted this past year by David Tilman, an ecology professor at the University of Minnesota, had demonstrated the potential for polycultures of multiple grass, prairie and wildflower species to serve as an alternative to switchgrass in producing ethanol. Tilman and his colleagues found that, in addition to producing more than twice the biomass than single-species planting (not less than 238% more than switchgrass), multiple-species plantations restored biodiversity, grew on degraded land and — perhaps most importantly — could be carbon negative. Biofuels derived from this source could also store up to 51% more energy per acre than corn.

The new light Nichols' study casts on the benefits of glomalin should provide further incentive for a closer examination and eventually demonstration of native prairie grasses as a future source of cellulosic ethanol.

Via ::ScienceDaily: Switchgrass may mean better soil (news website)

More about switchgrass
::Switch Grass: Fuel for the Future?
::Switch Grass Rush Starts In Oklahoma
::Are Switchgrass' Days Numbered?

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