Could Biofuels Go Native With Prairie Cordgrass?

Cows aren’t fond of it. “Prairie cordgrass provides fair to poor forage for livestock and wildlife,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture says. “It is seldom grazed because of the large amount of standing litter produced and the boggy areas in which it grows. If grazed, it is usually during the spring before the stems become coarse and woody, or in the fall after other forage has dried.”

This is why prairie cordgrass has been largely off the radar when it comes to study at the big ag schools, whose interest in perennial grasses like switchgrass as forage has translated more easily into research into their suitability as biofuels feedstocks.

prairie cordgrass, biofuel feedstock

image via Jennifer Anderson/USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Except, apparently, at the University of Illinois. There, D.K. Lee and Lane Rayburn, from the crop sciences department, are said to be gaga for prairie cordgrass, finding it just might have crop energy potential. Its strongest suit: It grows well on marginal land, particularly – as that USDA passage above suggest – wet land. “It likes environments that are too wet for row crop production,” Lee said.

Immediately this means that prairie cordgrass wouldn’t be crowding food crops, like corn (used to make ethanol) or soybeans (a feedstock for biodiesel).

One place in particular where prairie cordgrass might do well, the Illinois duo says, is cropland that has been abandoned due to high soil salinity after years of irritation with salt-heavy ground water. Lee sasy he tested it in just such a field in West Texas. It actually grew pretty well; the farmer was shocked,” he said.

Furthermore, the researchers, who work through the Earth Sciences Institute, say prairie cordgrass could be appealing from a land conservationtion standpoint. “One of the characteristics of this grass is that it has a strong rhizome and root system,” Lee said, making it good for erosion control.

Then there’s the fact, too, that’s it’s a native, so there’s no fear of it disrupting habitats.

As excited as the researchers are about prairie cordgrass and its potential, they’ve found a lot of variation in the genetic structure of the plant around the country. So that’s their goal right now – to gain a more precise understanding of its genome, which will help develop a “better cultivar with good agronomic traits.”

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.