23 February 1996

Could Miscanthus secure an outlet in bio-industry, too?

COULDthe potential bio-fuel crop Miscanthus benefit from bio-industrial uses as well?

That question, along with the progress on the crops agronomy, was addressed at a conference and demonstration on Miscanthus – Its future as a UK crop at Ely and ADAS Arthur Rickwood last week.

Miscanthus, also known as elephant grass, has good potential as a fuel, given the ability of its novel mechanism of photosynthesis to give very fast growth rates.

It also has possible markets for chemical and semi-chemical paper pulps and a partial wood substitute in MDF fibre board, commented Jamie Hague of the Bio Composites Centre, University of Wales.

But before commercial progress can be made, the agronomy of the crop must be proven. Trials are being carried out at seven MAFF-funded ADAS sites from High Mowthorpe, North Yorkshire, to Buckfast Abbey, Devon. Further work on agronomy and end-use is underway at 14 sites in 10 EU countries.

High yield potential

Miscanthus can provide 55t/ha (22t/acre) of dry matter a year, but yields of 15-25t/ha (6-10t/acre) are more likely to be achieved for growers in the UK, the conference heard.

However, little or no breeding effort has gone into the species. Several speakers felt there was every chance of gaining fairly rapid yield benefits by more rigorous selection.

Planting material also needs careful consideration. Both Mike Bullard, of ADAS Arthur Rickwood, and Willem Huisman, of Agrtechnon, Wageningen, felt that planting split rhizomes was preferable to using micropropogation material.

In Holland two- to three-year-old mother plants grown in sandy soil are cut up with a rotavator running at a slow speed, followed by lifting with a flower bulb harvester. The resulting 40-100g rhizome clumps are planted with an automatic planter, making sure that they do not dry out in the meantime. At the moment the "establishment cost is £3000 to £5000/10,000 plants," said Dr Bullard. But Dutch evidence suggests this can be brought down to £250/10,000 plants.

Trials are determining the optimum plant spacing for different soil types. It is expected that two plants a sq m will be the maximum.

Work in Germany, Denmark and the UK has shown that many cereal herbicides can be used with apparent safety. With harvesting in February and March, and growth not commencing till late April, it gives a window to apply glyphosate to emerged couch or other invasive weeds.

Current micro-propagated stocks "show barley yellow dwarf virus when under stress," commented Dr Bullard. There is evidence that this may reduce yields by 30%.


POSSIBLE USES


&#8226 Bio-fuel on and off farm.

&#8226 Fibre for paper and packing.

&#8226 Geotextile soil reinforcer.

&#8226 Wood replacer in MDF board.

&#8226 Building material.

Miscanthus, also known as elephant grass, offers tremendous growth potential in the UK, says Mike Bullard of ADAS, seen here in a growing crop last year. Despite a poor season trial crops at ADAS Arthur Rickwood yielded a respectable 15t/ha of dry matter, he reports.