Giant cane has huge potential as Oregon’s next biofuel source
Producing the newest energy crop in the West won’t be hard. It grows like a weed.
That’s because giant cane grass is considered a weed, says Don Horneck, agronomist at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Oregon.
The crop is gaining interest for growers in Morrow County, who may grow the woody grass plant for biofuel for the Boardman Power Plant. About 200 experimental acres are under commercial production, estimates Horneck, who is studying the plants at Hermiston.
“There could be a potential for 100,000 acres, if the testing goes well at Boardman,” he says. The Portland General Electric plant hopes cane grass will offer an alternative to using coal at the energy plant 30 miles west of Pendleton on the Columbia River.
But questions remain about how to produce and harvest giant cane, Horneck says. “We just planted our first crop at Hermiston in March.”
• Giant cane grass is being planted as a biomass crop in Oregon.
• Agronomic studies of the plants are under way in Hermiston, Ore.
• Potential exists for 100,000 acres of giant cane grass in the region.
While giant cane grass, which looks like bamboo, is commercially produced in Europe, its U.S. experience is limited. Italy and France list commercial production, mainly for material to make reeds for musical instruments, but some recent plantings have been used for biofuel.
One small crop planted near the Hermiston station in Washington was abandoned, resulting in little new information on agronomics of the plant, explains Horneck. A limited study at Washington State University in Prosser also yielded little about giant cane grass, but did prove that it can survive in the region.
A perennial that produces “a large amount of biomass,” giant cane grass plantings are being closely monitored at Hermiston due to a perception that it is a noxious weed. But Horneck believes the threat of invasiveness is minimal since the cane grass used in the area does not produce seeds.
While considered to be a C3 plant, meaning it does well in cool seasons, its survivability under a heavy frost is a concern. But if giant cane lives up to its potential, it could produce 20 tons of biomass an acre, estimates Horneck. And since it is a perennial, replanting would not be needed.
Rhizomes may cause headaches
But the large underground rhizomes — some as thick as the human forearm — could become a problem for farmers deciding to plant a different crop in a field once dedicated to cane grass.
“They would probably have to dig up the rhizomes,” he says.
Giant cane grass should be an easy crop to grow, adds Horneck, since it virtually “grows like a weed” and has no known pests in the Pacific Northwest. Its water needs are “about the same as for alfalfa,” he believes, requiring about 36 to 40 inches of moisture each year.
“Weed control should be minimal, since cane grass is very competitive,” he adds.
Other questions regarding management, such as fertilizer needs, likely will be answered in the Hermiston tests, he says, stating that “at most, I would estimate fertilizer needs would be moderate.”
The harvesting technique also is uncertain, although Horneck envisions using a chopper similar to one for corn silage. It is too early to estimate what kind of profit growers could net from giant cane grass.
Although PGE has contracted with growers for experimental plantings, officials did not make public the terms of those contracts.
This article published in the June, 2011 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.