The New Bioenergy “Prairie”

Kristin Peterson
Newsletter Issue: 
November 2014


Nebraska has some of the largest losses of native prairies in the United States and the state is not alone in seeing its native prairie vanish from the landscape.

According to a recent study by Christopher Wright and Michael Wimberly, the prairie loss in the nation’s corn belt is "comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia." This means prairies now rival rainforests in regards to destruction of habitat.

CenUSA Bioenergy and many others are looking for ways to tackle this daunting problem.

Although not strictly native, a “bioenergy prairie” can reintroduce some native perennial energy grasses into the landscape that can help mediate ecosystem damage. Although this approach is not a perfect solution, sometimes with large issues it helps to not let a search for perfection impede the ability for improvement.

Nebraska is exploring how practices that integrate prairie grasses into the modern agricultural landscape along with improvements in farm management can reduce farmland pollutants from entering the water and make for more viable habitats for some animals and insects.

 “Converting some of these agricultural lands to switchgrass or low diversity mixtures of switchgrass, big bluestem and maybe even some forbs, could really have a big wildlife benefit depending on the amount of acres that are put on the ground,” said Eric Zach, Agriculture Program Manager for the Nebraska Park and Game Commission.  Zach is a member of the CenUSA Advisory Board and chair of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Biofuels Working group. Zach has studied the wildlife habitat implications from CenUSA’s Bioenergy grass field trials and finds them to hold some potential for an improved climate for wildlife.

“The benefits of bioenergy crops are going to be dependent on the type of habitat that they replace. If these grasses are going to be put in place of monocultures of corn then more than likely they are going to be beneficial to wildlife,” said Dr. Susan Rupp, a wildlife biologist working with the National Wildlife Federation.  Dr. Rupp, author of the National Wildlife Federation’s 2013 Best Management Guidelines to Achieve Sustainability of Wildlife Resources acknowledges that these benefits do not occur if energy grasses are used to replace a more diversified crop or natural prairie land.

CenUSA is working on projects that integrate switchgrass and other perennial prairie grasses into farm fields. Additionally, CenUSA is working with the STRIPS (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairies) project led by Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture to evaluate how converting as little as 10% of row crop into buffer strips of perennial grass mixtures can have a positive environmental impact.

Although with a constant and growing demand for American agriculture to supply food, fuel and heat the prairies will never return to their former state, it is possible to integrate native perennials into the Midwestern landscape and create a more sustainable regional future.

Additional Resources:

Perennial Herbaceous Biomass Production and Harvest in the Prairie Pothole Region of the Northern Great Plains: Best Management Guidelines to Achieve Sustainability of Wildlife Resources

CenUSA Bioenergy Webinar featuring Susan Rupp: Perennial Herbaceous Biomass Production and Harvest: Best Management Guidelines to Achieve Sustainability of Wildlife Resources