To Grow or Not to Grow: New Switchgrass Decision Tool

Jake Miller
Newsletter Issue: 
December 2015

Dr. Keri Jacobs
Dr. Keri Jacobs, Iowa State University

With so many factors to consider, establishing switchgrass can be intimidating, especially when it comes to production costs. Three CenUSA Bioenergy researchers, Iowa State University agricultural economists Keri Jacobs and Chad Hart and USDA ARS Agronomist Rob Mitchell have recently redesigned the Switchgrass Decision Tool that promises to lend a hand. The tool is based on state-of-the-art switchgrass production management information developed by the entire CenUSA team. It draws on decades of research from both USDA-ARS and university research, escalated with the establishment of the CenUSA project, a five-year multi-institutional research effort supported by the USDA.

The backbone of the redesigned tool is a computer-based enterprise budget, released by Jacobs, Hart and Mitchell last spring that allows growers to calculate the costs and returns of switchgrass production. The original enterprise budget tool allowed producers to decide if growing switchgrass was economically viable and pointed to methods that have the potential to drive down the cost of producing switchgrass.

According to Iowa State University’s Keri Jacobs, assistant professor and extension economist and one of the tool developers, the original release of the tool included switchgrass best management practices and costs based on the latest CenUSA research, but it did not allow farmers to compare returns to switchgrass with other crops in a detailed way on their land.

The new version of the tool aims to remove that problem allowing producers to customize values based on their specific situation or use default values for a quick reference. "We wanted producers to have everything they needed to make an informed decision," said Jacobs.” "The biggest innovation in this tool is the tab labeled 'Your Production Estimates'."  After entering field-specific information and the alternative production practice, the spreadsheet calculates annual production costs, break-even yields, and break-even marketing prices. This allows producers to compare expected switchgrass rate of returns to those from other crops. Ultimately the tool can assist farmers in establishing switchgrass for the lowest possible cost while assuring them that at the end of the season they will make money on land they may not have used otherwise.

Improved management practices and the development of new high yielding hybrid varieties like ‘Liberty’ have improved switchgrass' cost effectiveness. However, more needs to be done to improve production efficiencies and reduce costs. "Transportation and storage seem to have the biggest opportunities right now to improve the economic profile of switchgrass for biomass," said Jacobs. 
Producers using the tool may be surprised to find that under certain situations, growing switchgrass can actually compete with corn and soybeans. Also, converting land from switchgrass back into cropland is less expensive and requires fewer steps than many farmers may expect.

You can download the necessary files here.