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The Center for Native Grasslands Management

Title: The biology and agronomy of switchgrass for biofuels
Year: 2005
Author(s): Parrish, D. J., Fike, J. H.
Source Title: Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences
Source Type: Journal
pages: 423-459
Original Publication: http://  
Abstract: Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.)-a perennial, warm-season (C-4) species-evolved across North America into multiple, divergent populations. The resulting natural variation within the species presents considerable morphological diversity and a wide range of adaptation. The species was adopted as a crop-initially as a forage-only in the last 50 yr. Its potential uses have recently been expanded to include biofuels. Management of switchgrass for biofuels is informed by an understanding of the plant’s biology. Successful establishment requires attention to seed dormancy and weed control as well as proper depth and date of planting. The plant’s growth rate is closely tied to temperature, but timing of reproductive development is linked to photoperiod. Accordingly, the period of vegetative growth can be extended by planting lower-latitude cultivars at higher latitudes. This strategy may provide a yield advantage, but cold tolerance can become limiting. Switchgrass is thrifty in its use of applied N; it appears able to obtain N from sources that other crops cannot tap. The N removed in harvested biomass is often greater than the amount of N applied. In areas with sufficient rainfall, sustainable yields of similar to 15 Mg ha(-1) yr(-1) may be achievable by applying similar to 50 kg N ha(-1) yr(-1). Harvesting biomass once per season-after plants have senesced and translocated N into perennial tissues-appears to allow plants to maintain an internal N reserve. Two harvests yr(-1) may increase yields in some cultivars, but a single annual harvest maximizes yields in many cases. If two harvests are taken, more N must be applied to compensate for the N removed in the midseason harvest. Taking more than two harvests yr(-1) often adversely affects long-term productivity and persistence. Switchgrass has potential as a renewable fuel source, but such use will likely require large infrastructural changes; and, even at maximum output, such systems could not provide the energy currently being derived from fossil fuels.