Sustainable Feedstock Production Systems

The Sustainable Feedstock Production Systems team conducts comparative analyses of the productivity potential and environmental impacts of the most promising bioenergy and bioproducts crops and management systems using a network of 17 fields strategically located across the Midwestern region. 

The larger goal is to produce a quantitative assessment of the net energy balance of candidate systems and to optimize perennial feedstock production and ecosystem services on marginally productive cropland while maintaining food production on prime land. Evaluation of biochar and how it interacts with plants, soils and microbes in agro-ecosystems is a major focus. 

Our Feedstock Production team members have produced an extensive resource library with material for everyone involved in the production of perennial grasses.

Project Directors

  • Jeffrey Volenec, Purdue University
  • Robert Mitchell, USDA, Agricultural Research Service
  • David Laird, Iowa State University


  • Sylvie Brouder, Purdue University
  • Michael Casler, University of Wisconsin
  • Indrajeet Chaubey, Purdue University
  • Emily Heaton, Iowa State University
  • Virginia Jin, USDA, Agricultural Research Service
  • John Lamb, University of Minnesota
  • DoKyoung Lee, University of Illinois
  • Richard Perrin, University of Nebraska - Lincoln
  • Carl Rosen, University of Minnesota
  • Ron Turco, Purdue University
  • Brian Weinhold, USDA, Agricultural Research Service

Research Summaries

Biofuel Quality Improved by Delaying Harvest of Perennial Grass (Mar. 2017)

  • CenUSA's Emily Heaton (Agronomy, Iowa State University) shows how a simple management strategy can decrease nitrogen contaminants in perennial grasses, while also providing additional ecosystem services.

Management Practices Impact Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Harvest of Corn Stover for Biofuels (Jan. 2015)

  • CenUSA's Virginia Jin (Research Soil Scientist, USDA-Agricultural Research Service) explains how residue management and tillage can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from soils during production of corn stover for biofuel.

Biochar Can Improve the Sustainability of Stover Removal for Bioenergy (Oct. 2013)

  • CenUSA's David Laird (Agronomy, Iowa State University) discusses how returning biochar created by fast pyrolysis to the soil means more stover residue can be harvested for bioenergy without degrading soil quality or hurting crop yields.

Fact Sheets

Successfully Harvest Switchgrass Grown for Biofuel (Jan. 2017)

  • CenUSA's Kevin Shinners (Agricultural Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison) & Pamela Porter, Environmental Resources Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison) explain the rationale and best practices for using equipment for harvesting perennial grass biomass.

Guidelines to Growing Perennial Grasses for Biofuel and Bioproducts (PDF) (Fall 2016)

  • A quick and concise guide to growing perennial grasses.

Storing Perennial Grasses Grown for Biofuel (Jul. 2015)

  • CenUSA's Kevin Shinners (Agricultural Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison) explains that matter how perennial grasses grown for biofuel feedstock are stored, care must be taken to minimize dry matter losses and maintain uniform physical and chemical properties.

Estimated Cost of Establishment and Production of “Liberty” Switchgrass: Perennial Grass Decision Support Tool (May 2015)

  • Use this decision tool to estimate costs of establishment and returns for raising switchgrass (Mainul Hoque, Georgeanne Artz, Chad Hart, Iowa State University).

Control Weeds in Switchgrass (Panicum Virgatum L.) Grown for Biomass (Mar. 2014)

  • CenUSA's Rob Mitchell (USDA-ARS Grain, Forage, and Bioenergy Research Unit, Lincoln, NE) discusses how to manage weeds, with mowing and herbicides, when seeding switchgrass grown for biomass.

Test Plots Show How Perennial Grasses Can Be Grown for Biofuels (Jun. 2013) 

  • CenUSA's Rob Mitchell (USDA-ARS Grain, Forage, and Bioenergy Research Unit, Lincoln, NE) and Jeffrey Volenec (Professor of Agronomy, Purdue University) discuss the protocols they use to set up perennial grass test plots.

Logistical Challenges to Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) as a Bioenergy Crop (May 2013) 

  • CenUSA's Stuart Birrell (Ag & Biosystems Engineering, Iowa State University) and Amy Kohmetscher (Distance Education Specialist, Agronomy and Horticulture, University of Nebraska-Lincoln) show there’s more to producing a crop like switchgrass for bioenergy than just growing it.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L) Stand Establishment: Key Factors for Success (May 2013) 

  • CenUSA's Rob Mitchell (USDA-ARS Grain, Forage, and Bioenergy Research Unit, Lincoln, NE) describes the key management practices needed for successful switchgrass establishment.

Peer Reviewed Journal Articles

  • Archontoulis, S.V., I. Huber, F.E. Miguez, P.J. Thorburn & D.A. Laird. 2016. A model for mechanistic and system assessments of biochar effects on soils and crops and tradeoffs. GCB Bioenergy 8: 1028–1045. doi: 10.1111/gcbb.12314. (Open Access).
  • Basso, A.S., Miguez, F.E., Laird, D.A., Horton, R. & Westgate, M. 2013. Assessing potential of biochar for increasing water-holding capacity of sandy soils. GCB Bioenergy 5(2):132–143. doi: 10.1111/gcbb.12026.
  • Bakshi, S., D.M. Aller & D.A. Laird. 2016. Comparison of the physical and chemical properties of laboratory- and field-aged biochars. J. Environ. Qual. 45(5):1627-1634. doi: 10.2134/jeq2016.02.0062.
  • Bonin C., E.A. Heaton & J. Barb. 2014. Miscanthus sacchariflorus: biofuel parent or new weed? GCB Bioenergy 6:629–636. (Open Access)
  • Cibin, R., E. Trybula, I. Chaubey, S.M. Brouder & J.J. Volenec. 2016. Watershed scale impacts of bioenergy crops on hydrology and water quality using improved SWAT model. GCB Bioenergy 8(4):837-848. doi: (Open Access).
  • Coulman, B., A. Dalai , E.A. Heaton, M. Lefsrud, D. Levin, P.G. Lemaux, D. Neale, S.P. Shoemaker, J. Singh, D.L. Smith & Whalen J.K. (2013). Developments in crops and management systems to improve lignocellulosic feedstock production. BioFPR 7:582-601.
  • Dierking, R.M., D. Allen, S.M. Brouder & J.J. Volenec. 2016. Yield, biomass composition, and N use efficiency during establishment of four Miscanthus × giganteus genotypes as influenced by N management. Biomass Bioenergy 91:98-107.
  • Dowd, P.F., G. Sarath, R.B. Mitchell, A.J. Saathoff & K.P. Vogel. 2012. Insect resistance of a full sib family of tetraploid switchgrass Panicum virgatum L. with varying lignin levels. Genet. Resour. Crop Evol. 60(3):975-983. doi:10.1007/s10722-012-9893-8
  • Emerson, R., A. Hoover, A. Ray, J. Lacey, M. Cortez, C. Payne, D.L. Karlen, S.J. Birrell, D. Laird, R. Kallenbach, J. Egenolf, M. Sousek & T. Voigt. 2014. Drought effects on composition and yield for corn stover, mixed grasses, and Miscanthus as bioenergy feedstocks. Biofuels 53:(3)275-279. doi: 10.1080/17597269.2014.913904.
  • Feng, Q., I. Chaubey, G.Y. Her, R. Cibin, B. Engel, J.J. Volenec & X. Wang. 2015. Hydrologic and water quality impacts and biomass production potential on marginal land. Environ. Model. & Softw. 72:230-238.
  • Fidel, R.B. D.A. Laird & T.B. Parkin. 2017. Impact of six lignocellulosic biochars on C and N dynamics of two contrasting soils. GCB Bioenergy (Early View). doi. 10.1111/gcbb.12414. (Open Access:
  • Follett, R.F., K.P. Vogel, G. Varvel, Mitchell, R.B., & J. Kimble. 2012. Soil carbon sequestration by switchgrass and no-till maize grown for bioenergy. Bioenergy Res. 5(4):866-875. doi: 10.1007/s12155-012-9198-y.
  • Heaton E.A., L.A. Schulte, M. Bert, H. Langeveld, W. Zegada-Lizarazu, D. Parrish & A. Monti. 2013. Integrating food and fuel: How to manage a 2G-crop portfolio. BioFPR. 7:702-714.
  • Heaton E.A., L.A. Schulte, M. Berti, H. Langeveld, W. Zegada-Lizarazu, D. Parrish & A. Monti. 2013. Managing a second-generation crop portfolio through sustainable intensification: Examples from the USA and the EU Biofuels. Bioprod. Bioref. 7:702–714. 
  • Johnson, J.M.F., D.L. Karlen, G.L., Gresham, K.B. Cantrell, D.W. Archer, B.J. Wienhold, G.E. Varvel, D.A. Laird, J. Baker, T.E. Ochsner, J.M. Novak, A.D. Halvorson, F. Arriaga, D.T. Lightle, A. Hoover, R. Emerson & N.W. Barbour. 2014. Vertical distribution of structural components in corn stover. Agriculture 4:274-287. doi:10.3390/agriculture4040274. (Open Access).
  • Mitchell, R., M. Schmer, B. Anderson, V. Jin, K. Balkcom, J. Kiniry, A. Coffin, A. & P. White. 2016. Dedicated energy crops and crop residues for bioenergy feedstocks in the Central and Eastern USA. BioEnergy Res. 9:384-398. doi: 10.1007/s12155-016-9734-2. (Open Access).
  • Mitchell, R.B. & K.P. Vogel. 2016. Grass invasion into switchgrass managed for biomass energy. Bioenergy Res. 9(1):50-56. doi:10.1007/s12155-015-9656-4.
  • Ojeda, J.J., J.J. Volenec, S.M. Brouder, O.P. Caviglia & M.G. Agnusdei. 2016. Evaluation of Agricultural Production Systems Simulator APSIM as yield predictor of Panicum virgatum and Miscanthus x giganteus in several US environments. GCB Bioenergy. doi: 10.1111/gcbb.12384. (Open Access).
  • Orr M. J., G. Bischoff, B. Applegate, J.J Volenec, S.M. Brouder & R.F. Turco. 2015. Transition to second generation cellulosic biofuel production systems reveals limited negative impacts on the soil microbial community structure. Appl. Soil Ecol. 95:62-72.
  • Owens V.N., D.R. Viands, H.S. Mayton, J.H. Fike, R. Farris, E.A. Heaton, D.I. Bransby & C.O. Hong. 2013. Nitrogen use in switchgrass grown for bioenergy across the USA. Biomass Bioenergy 58:286-293.
  • Porter, P., R.B. Mitchell & K.J. Moore. 2015. Reducing hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico: Reimagining a more resilient agricultural landscape in the Mississippi River watershed. J. Soil Water Conserv. 70(3):63A-68A. (Open Access).
  • Rogovska, N., D.A. Laird, S.J. Rathke & D.L. Karlen. 2014. Biochar impact on Midwestern Mollisols and maize nutrient availability. Geoderma 230-231:340-347.
  • Rogovska, N., D.A. Laird & D.L. Karlen. 2016. Corn and soil response to biochar application and stover harvest. Field Crops Res. 187:96-106.
  • Schmer M.R., K.P. Vogel, G.E. Varvel, R.E. Follett R.F. &  R.B Mitchell. 2014. Energy Potential and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Bioenergy Cropping Systems on Marginally Productive Cropland. PLoS ONE 9(3): e89501. (Open Access).
  • Serapiglia, M.J., A.A. Boateng, D.K. Lee & M.D.  Casler, M.D. 2016. Switchgrass harvest time management can impact biomass yield and nutrient content. Crop Sci. 56(4):1970-1980. doi: 10.2135/cropsci2015.08.0527.
  • Sindelar, A., M. , M. Gesch, F. Forcella, C. Eberle, M. Thom & D. Archer. 2015. Winter oilseed production for biofuel in the U.S. Corn Belt: Opportunities and limitations. GCB Bioenergy. 10.1111/gcbb.12297. (Open Access).
  • Trybula, E.T., R. Cibin, J.L. Burks, I. Chaubey, S.M. Brouder & J.J. Volenec. 2014. Perennial rhizomatous grasses as bioenergy feedstock in SWAT: parameter development and model improvement. GCB Bioenergy 7: 1185–1202. doi: 10.1111/gcbb.12210. (Open Access).
  • Vogel, K.P., G. Sarath & R.B. Mitchell. 2014. Micro-mesh fabric pollination bags for switchgrass. Crop Sci. 54:1621-1623.  doi: 10.2135/cropsci2013.09.0647.
  • Vogel, K.P. R. Medill, S.D. Masterson, R.B. Mitchell & G. Sarath. 2017. Mineral Element Analyses of Switchgrass Biomass: Comparison of the Accuracy and Precision of Laboratories. Agron. J. 109:1–4. doi:10.2134/agronj2016.08.0475.
  • Waramit, N., K.J. Moore & E.A. Heaton. (2013). Nitrogen and harvest date affect developmental morphology and biomass yield of warm-season grasses. GCB Bioenergy. doi: 10.1111/gcbb.12086.
  • Woodson, P., S.M. Brouder & J.J. Volenec. 2013. Field-scale potassium and phosphorus fluxes in the bioenergy crop switchgrass: Theoretical energy yields and management implications. J. Plant Nutr. Soil Sci. 176:387-399. doi:10.1002/jpln.201200294. (Abstract).

Instructional Videos and Webinars

Competition for Land Use: Why would the rational producer grow switchgrass for biofuel?

  • Keri Jacobs (Economics, Iowa State Univ.) considers the current economics of switchgrass production in the Central United States and the fundamental challenges and opportunities that exist. [43:21]

Perennial Herbaceous Biomass Production and Harvest in the Prairie Pothole Region of the Northern Great Plains

  • Susan Rupp (National Wildlife Federation) discusses 'Best Management Guidelines' for achieving wildlife sustainability during perennial herbaceous biomass production and harvest by producers and industry in the Prairie Pothole Region of the Northern Great Plains. Sponsored by CenUSA, SunGrant, and National Wildlife Federation. (53:20)

Plant Pathogen Risk Analysis for Bioenergy Switchgrass Grown in the Central USA

  • Plant pathologist Gary Yuen (Univ. of Nebraska, Lincoln) is studying various pathogens capable of infecting switchgrass, new switchgrass varieties, and their response to pathogen infection. [7:35]

Entomology Research: Examining Insect Populations and Exploring Natural Plant Resistance 

  • Tiffany Heng-Moss (Entomology, Univ.of Nebraska, Lincoln) explains efforts to survey insect populations, explore natural resistance in feedstocks, and how these preliminary findings will ultimately benefit producers in the future. [4:07]

Switchgrass Economics in the North Central Region of the USA

  • Richard Perrin (Ag Economics, Univ. of Nebraska, Lincoln) walks the viewer through switchgrass production costs, potential markets, and market values for switchgrass biomass. Dr. Perrin also discusses potential break even values for corn and switchgrass production on marginal land. [42:49]

Overview of Switchgrass Diseases

  • Stephen Wegulo (Extension Plant Pathologist, Univ. of Nebraska, Lincoln) and Gary Yuen (Plant Pathology, Univ. of Nebraska, Lincoln) present an overview of switchgrass diseases and production constraints caused by weeds and insects. Among the diseases discussed are Panicum mosaic caused by a virus and rust and leaf spots caused by fungi. (48:37)

Optimizing Harvest of Perennial Grasses for Biofuel

  • Kevin Shinners (Biological Systems Engineering, Univ. of Wisconsin discusses new systems to harvest, handle, store and transport perennial grasses that will be used as biomass feedstocks. See the accompanying fact sheet" Optimizing Harvest Logistics of Perennial Grasses Used for Biofuel" [4:50]

How to Measure Stand Establishment Using a Grid

  • John Guretzky (Extension Educator, Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln) demonstrates how to use a grid to measure perennial grass stand establishment. [9:04]

Harvesting Native Grass for Biofuel Production 

  • Rob Mitchell (USDA-ARS) discusses the potential of switchgrass in biofuel production while demonstrating harvesting equipment usage. [2:57]

Switchgrass Establishment, Weed Control, and Seed Quality 

  • Rob Mitchell (USDA-ARS) discusses switchgrass establishment, weed control, and seed quality at the March 20, 2012, CenUSA-Extension Switchgrass Establishment Field Day in Mead, Nebraska. [30:53]

Switchgrass Cost of Production

  • Marty Schmer (Agroecosystem Management Research Unit USDA-ARS), discusses the factors influencing switchgrass production costs at the CenUSA Switchgrass Establishment Field Day held Mar. 20, 2012 in Mead, Nebraska. [33:59]

Switchgrass and Bioenergy Crop Logistics

  • Stuart Birrell (Ag & Biosystems Engineering (Iowa State Univ.) discusses the logistics involved in producing and harvesting switchgrass and other bioenergy crops at the March 20, 2012 CenUSA Switchgrass Establishment Field Day in Mead, Nebraska.  [36:43]

No-Till Drill Calibration Training 

  • Rob Mitchell (USDA-ARS) discusses how to calibrate the Truax No-Till Drill Seeder at the CenUSA Switchgrass Establishment Field Day (Mar. 20, 2012) held in Mead, Nebraska. [20:05]         

Switchgrass Planting Practices for Stand Establishment

  • Rob Mitchell (USDA-ARS) walks you through the keys to successful switchgrass establishment. [5:17]

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)