More Sustainable Feedstock for Ethanol

Picture: Researcher Gregg Sanford stands before a plot of giant miscanthus at Arlington.


Perennial crop yields can compete with corn stover, study suggests
By Mark E. Griffin

A six-year Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) study on the viability of different bioenergy feedstocks recently demonstrated that perennial cropping systems such as switchgrass, giant miscanthus, poplar, native grasses and prairie can yield as much biomass as corn stover.

The study is significant for addressing one of the biofuel industry’s biggest questions: Can environmentally beneficial crops produce enough biomass to make their conversion to ethanol efficient and economical?

Since 2008, research scientists Gregg Sanford and Gary Oates, based in the lab of CALS agronomy professor Randy Jackson, have worked with colleagues at Michigan State University (MSU) to cultivate more than 80 acres of crops with the potential to become feedstocks for so-called “second-generation” biofuels, that is, biofuels derived from non-food crops or the nonfood portion of plants. They’ve grown these crops at the CALS-based Arlington Agricultural Research Station and at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station.

“We understand annual systems really well, but little research has been done on the yield of perennial cropping systems as they get established and begin to produce, or after farmland has been converted to a perennial system,” says Oates.

To find out basic information about how well certain crops produce biomass, Sanford and Oates tested the crops across two criteria: diversity of species, and whether a crop grows perennially (continuously, year after year) or annually (needing to be replanted each year).

Highly productive corn stover has thus far been the main feedstock for second-generation biofuels. And yet perennial cropping systems, which are better equipped to build soil quality, reduce runoff, and minimize greenhouse gas release into the atmosphere, confer more environmental benefits.

Corn, when grain is included, proved to be most productive over the first six-year period of the study at the Wisconsin site, but giant miscanthus, switchgrass, poplar and native grasses were not far behind. At the MSU site, where soil is less fertile, miscanthus actually produced the same amount of biomass as corn (grain included) in the experiment, with poplar and switchgrass within range.

“All of this means that, at large scales and on various soils, these crops are competitive with corn, the current dominant feedstock for ethanol,” Sanford says.

Now in the midst of the study’s eighth year, Sanford says the study will continue for the foreseeable future.

“We know that perennial systems can prevent negative impacts such as soil erosion and nitrate leaching, and that they also provide habitat for native species that provide beneficial ecosystem services,” Sanford says. “But there are still a lot of questions we want to answer about soil processes and properties— questions that take many years to answer.”

Better Corn for Biofuel

smkCorn is a common sight in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest, but it’s actually more of a tropical species. As the growing regions for corn move farther north, a corn hybrid has to flower and mature more quickly to produce crop within a shorter growing season. That flowering time is determined by the genetics of the corn hybrid.

Conversely, delayed flowering is beneficial for other uses of corn. For example, when flowering is delayed, corn can produce more biomass instead of food, and that biomass can then be used as raw material to make biofuel.

The genetics of different hybrids controls their flowering time and, therefore, how useful they are for given purposes or growing regions. Shawn Kaeppler, a professor of agronomy, is working to better understand those genes and how various hybrids can best fit a desired function. Much of his work is done in collaboration with fellow agronomy professor Natalia de Leon.

“We look across different populations and cross plants to produce progeny with different flowering times,” Kaeppler explains. “Then we use genetic mapping strategies to understand which genes are important for those traits.”

Throughout his work with plant genetics, Kaeppler has taken full advantage of resources for entreprenuers on campus. He has patents filed or pending, and he has also received Accelerator funds through WARF. For his project looking at the genetics behind flowering time, Kaeppler and graduate student Brett Burdo received Igniter funds from D2P as well. The Igniter program has proven invaluable for Kaeppler and Burdo as they try to place their innovation in the best position for success.

“I found the Igniter program very useful, to go through the process of understanding what it takes to get a product to market,” says Kaeppler. “It also includes funding for some of the steps in the research and for some of the time that’s spent. I can’t fund my graduate student off a federal grant to participate in something like this, so the Igniter funding allowed for correct portioning of funding.”

The end goal of Kaeppler’s project is to develop a transgenic plant as a research model and license the technology, not develop a startup company. His team is currently testing transgenic plants to work up a full package of information that interested companies would use to decide if they should license the technology. For Kaeppler, licensing is the best option since they can avoid trying to compete with big agricultural companies, and the technology will still get out to the market where it’s needed to create change.

“In this area of technology transfer, it is important not only to bring resources back to UW but also to participate in meeting the challenges the world is facing with increasing populations,” says Kaeppler. “Programs like D2P and WARF are critical at this point in time to see the potential of these discoveries realized.”

Dan Undersander to Receive Three Crop Society Awards

Congratulations to Agronomy faculty member Dan Undersander, who has been selected to receive three awards at the ASA/CSSA Annual meeting in November: the ASA Agronomic Extension Education Award, ASA Agronomic Service Award, and CSSA Crop Science Extension Award.

The Agronomic Extension Education Award recognizes educational contributions of extension agronomists, industrial agronomists, or others whose primary contributions are in teaching or education outside the university classroom.

The Agronomic Service Award recognizes development of agronomic service programs, practices, and products for acceptance by the public. The focus will be on agronomic service with associated educational, public relations, and administrative contributions of industrial agronomists, governmental, industrial, or university administrators and others.

The Crop Science Extension Award is presented in recognition of excellence in extension teaching activities in the area of crop science.

The awards come with recognition at a ceremony at the Annual Meeting in Phoenix, AZ and award funds.

Adam Gaspar recipient of 2016 Mott Scholarship

UW Agronomy PhD candidiate Adam Gaspar has been awarded the 2016 Gerald O. Mott Scholarship for Meritorious Graduate Students in Crop Science.

The Gerald O. Mott Scholarship is provided to a meritorious graduate student in crop science. The scholarship is supported by gifts from the Gerald O. Mott family to the Agronomic Science Foundation and administered by the Crop Science Society of America.

Adam will be presented with the award at the annual CSSA meeting in November.

PSGSC Journal Club for 2/15

Hello Plant Scientists!

Computational thinking is a widely applicable analytical skill with potential to improve the way we approach scientific inquiries. Jeannette Wing (2006, 2008) presents a case for actively developing this ability, which combines abstract thought processes from mathematics, engineering, and the sciences. Please join us Monday, Feb. 15 at noon in Moore 473, where Schuyler Smith will lead a discussion on the what, how and why of computational thinking.

The forecast is intellectually stimulating with a 100% chance of coffee and cookies.

We look forward to seeing you there!


Wing 2008

Wing 2006

PSGSC Journal Club for 2/1

Welcome back! The temperatures may have dropped, but Journal Club is coming in hot!

Do you believe in MAGIC? Please joinus to discuss the use of Multi-parent Advanced Generation Inter-cross populations in fine mapping, novel QTL identification, and applied breeding. In their 2013 paper, Bandillo et al. describe the development and use of MAGIC populations in rice. These populations offer plant scientists a valuable new tool with advantages over traditional QTL mapping and GWAS, as well as a convenient excuse to justify your results with “magic.” Hope to see you there!

Bandillo et al. 2013

Study Suggests Perennial Crop Yields Can Compete with Corn Stover

A six-year Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) study on the viability of different bioenergy feedstocks recently demonstrated that perennial cropping systems such as switchgrass, giant miscanthus, poplar, native grasses, and prairie can yield as much biomass as corn stover.

The study is significant for beginning to address one of the biofuel industry’s biggest questions: can environmentally beneficial crops produce enough biomass to make their conversion to ethanol efficient and economical?

(Continues at:

2016 WI Agronomy Update Meetings

MADISON, Wis. — The Department of Agronomy will offer Crop Production and Management Meetings at eight locations during 2016. Joe Lauer, Dan Undersander and Shawn Conley will present the latest information on hybrid/variety performance, an analysis and discussion of last year’s growing season, and updated recommendations for field crop production.

The registration fee includes a meal and materials. Please pre-register with the Host Agent. A “walk-in” (Late) fee will be charged to those who have not preregistered. Additional information packets will be available for $18.00 each. Certified Crop Advisor CEU credits have been requested (3.0 hours in Crop Management). Below is a list of topics, meeting sites, dates and times. Please join us at meeting in your area.

Packet Materials

2015 Wisconsin Hybrid Corn Performance Trials – Grain and Silage (A3653)

2015 Wisconsin Soybean Variety Test Results (A3654)

2015 Perennial Forage Variety Update for Wisconsin (A1525)

Winter wheat varieties for grain in Wisconsin – 2015 (A3868)

Wisconsin Crop Improvement Association updates

Extension publications

Agronomy Advice articles

Discussion Topics



• Reduced lignin alfalfa management

• New race of anthracnose

• Coated grass seed


• A retrospective of WI corn production decisions

• RIB hybrid performance

• Do we need to do tillage for corn production in WI?

Soybeans and Small Grains

• Prioritizing Soybean Inputs to Maximize Grower Profitability in 2016

• Cover Crop or Fall Forage… Spring Grains Options Planted After Winter Wheat


(Originally from Morning Ag Clips, here)

Ag News for 12/15

USDA announces funding available for Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Programs – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack  announces the availability of $17.6 million in funding to support research and outreach activities that will help growers, producers, and processors find innovative ways to improve organic agriculture.

New Faculty Profile: Valentin Picasso

Cover crop research opportunity: Open call for presentation for annual Production Agriculture Symposium entitled “Cover Crops: Economic and Environmental Management” (March 22-26, St. Paul).

New FISC seminar covers organic grain production and marketing.

2016 Wisconsin Crop Management Conference – Jan 12-14, 2016.

Plant Sciences Journal Club for December 14

Greetings Plant Scientists!

Please join us next Monday at noon in Moore 473 as we will talk about the impact of climate change on U.S. soybean production.

Increases in crop yields over time are often attributed to genetic and management advances, but the impact of climate change on yield gain is often confounded with these advances or simply overlooked.  Efforts led by the Conley lab here at the UW examined how temperature and precipitation changes have solely influenced soybean yield in the U.S. over the past 20 years.  The work by Mourtzinis et al. (2015) shows that climate change has benefited growers in some states while negatively impacting others.

David Marburger will lead this discussion describing the positive and negative impacts of climate change on soybean production throughout the U.S. and share ways soybean growers can adapt their management strategies in order to mitigate the negative impacts.

Mourtzinis et al. 2015

We hope to see you next week!


Plant Sciences Journal Club for 12/7

Greetings Plant Scientists!

Please join us next Monday at noon in Moore 473 to talk about the origins of modern tomato.

We all know modern crops went through a process of domestication, which is considered the first stage in plant breeding. Even though tomato is one of the most studied vegetables worldwide and is considered a high value crop, little is known about how human selection altered its genome to make it 100 bigger than its wild ancestor! Lin et al. (2014) used genome sequences to provide evidence for the changes in the tomato genome due to domestication and improvement.

Carlos Arbizu will lead the discussion around this impressive study which provided key insights into the (beneficial as well detrimental) effects of human selection on the world most-valued vegetable.

Lin et al. 2014

We hope to see you next week!