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Regulations needed to identify potentially invasive biofuel crops

Published August 7, 2014
Switchgrass and Miscanthus

URBANA, Ill. – If the hottest new plant grown as a biofuel crop is approved based solely on its greenhouse gas emission profile, its potential as the next invasive species may not be discovered until it’s too late. In response to this need to prevent such invasions, researchers at the University of Illinois have developed both a set of regulatory definitions and provisions and a list of 49 low-risk biofuel plants from which growers can choose.

Lauren Quinn, an invasive plant ecologist at U of I’s Energy Biosciences Institute, recognized that most of the news about invasive biofuel crops was negative and offered few low-risk alternatives to producers. She and her colleagues set out to create a list of low-risk biofuel crops that can be safely grown for conversion to ethanol but realized in the process that regulations were needed to instill checks and balances in the system.

“There are not a lot of existing regulations that would prevent the planting of potentially invasive species at the state or federal levels. For example, there are currently only four states (Florida, Mississippi, Oregon, and Maryland) that have any laws relating to how bioenergy crops can be grown and that include any language about invasive species—and, for the most part, when those words do appear, they are either not defined or poorly defined,” said Quinn.

In approving new biofuel products, Quinn said that the EPA doesn’t formally consider invasiveness at all – just greenhouse gas emissions related to their production. “Last summer, the EPA approved two known invaders, Arundo donax (giant reed) and Pennisetum purpurem (napier grass), despite public criticism," added U of I professor of agricultural law A. Bryan Endres, who co-authored the research to define legislative language for potentially invasive bioenergy feedstocks.

Part of the problem is that there is no clear scientific definition of what it means to be invasive. The team of researchers used fundamental biological, ecological, and management principles to develop definitions for terminology commonly used to describe invasive species.

“Our definition of invasive is ‘a population exhibiting a net negative impact or harm to the target ecosystem,’ for example,” Quinn said. “We want to establish guidelines that will be simple for regulators and informed by the ecological literature and our own knowledge. We also need to recognize that some native plants can become weedy or invasive. It’s complicated and requires some understanding of the biology of these plants.”

Quinn said that ideally the definitions and suggested regulations could become part of a revised Renewable Fuels Standard administered by EPA, which would require Congress to make the changes. The proposed regulations could also be adopted at the state level.  

“Some of the biofeedstocks currently being examined by the EPA for approval, like pennycress, have a high risk for invasion,” Quinn said. “Others have vague names such as jatropha with no species name, which is problematic. For example, there are three main Miscanthus species but only sterile hybrid Miscanthus × giganteus types are considered low risk. However, the EPA has approved “Miscanthus” as a feedstock without specifying a species or genotype” Quinn said. “That’s fine for the low-risk sterile types but could mean higher-risk fertile types could be approved without additional oversight.”

According to Quinn, the white list, which includes 49 low-risk feedstock plants, will serve to clear up the confusion about plant names. The list was developed using an existing weed risk assessment protocol, which includes 49 questions that must be asked about a particular species based on its biology, ecology, and its history of being invasive in other parts of the world.

“Those questions are difficult to answer for new taxa, including plants that haven’t been around long or have just recently been developed by breeders,” Quinn said. “This will be the first time that they are out in the environment so we don’t know what their potential for invasiveness is. But the white list offers plenty of choices of plants that are already commercially available, and the feedstocks on the list have a number of different industrial uses.”

Quinn stressed that the native plants that are included in the white list are only recommended as the native genotypes grown in their native region, because although a plant may be native to a part of the United States, it could be considered invasive if grown in a different region.

“For example, Panicum virgatum is the variety of switchgrass that is low risk everywhere except for the three coastal states of Washington, Oregon, and California, but future genotypes that may be bred with more invasive characteristics, such as rapid growth or prolific seed production, may have higher risk.”

The researchers believe that the white list provides producers with clearly identified low-invasion risk options and may reduce conflicts between objectives for increasing renewable fuel production and reducing unintended impacts and costs resulting from the propagation of invasive plants.

“Resolving regulatory uncertainty: legislative language for potentially invasive bioenergy feedstocks” was published in an issue of GCB Bioenergy. Co-authors include Elise Scott and James McCubbins from the Energy Biosciences Institute, A. Bryan Endres and Thomas Voigt from the University of Illinois, and Jacob Barney from Virginia Tech.

“Bioenergy feedstocks at low risk for invasion in the U.S.: A ‘white list’ approach” was published in Bioenergy Research. Co-authors include Aviva Glaser from the National Wildlife Federation, Doria Gordon from the Nature Conservancy, and Deah Lieurance and Luke Flory from the University of Florida.

Funding for both research projects was provided in part by the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of Illinois.

Farm manager plays leading role in postharvest loss

Published August 6, 2014
Muddy road in Mato Grosso

URBANA, Ill. – With all the effort it takes to grow a food crop from seed to sale, it may be surprising that some farms in Brazil lose 10 to 12 percent of their yield at various points along the postharvest route. According to a University of Illinois agricultural economist, when it comes to meeting the needs of the world’s growing population that’s a lot of food falling through the cracks. Interestingly, farm managers who are aware of the factors that contribute to postharvest grain loss actually lose less grain. This was one of the findings in a study that examined how managers of large farms in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso may be negatively affecting the efficiency of their own operations.

“Clearly there are things that you can do to reduce loss—you can put bed liners in trucks, you can adjust your combine, you can harvest more slowly—but for the farmers in Mato Grosso, it’s not a high priority,” said Peter Goldsmith. “It doesn’t seem rational. If you see soybeans bouncing off your windshield from the truck ahead of you and bands of soybeans along the berm, why wouldn’t you try to prevent it? It appears that farm managers in Brazil actually allow loss to happen because the cost of reducing loss is greater than the benefits.”

Goldsmith said that one of the basic research questions of the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss, which funded this study, is about why loss occurs. He said that although there are hundreds of articles about postharvest loss, no one is working with the farm managers to find out, from a managerial and organizational perspective, what drives this loss. There is a discrepancy between the reality of the postharvest loss and what the managers believe to be acceptable loss.

Goldsmith explained that in tropical systems where the farming season lasts much longer than in the United States the more intensive production results in two crops a year on the same plot of ground—soybeans followed by corn.

“Because they are in such a hurry to get the soybean crop harvested so they can get the maize crop planted before the rainy season, they may: harvest too fast, desiccate green soybean to advance harvest, or expose soybean to the weather during transport, all of which results in a 10 percent loss,” Goldsmith said. “The loss isn’t intentional but rather a level that the farm manager is willing to live with in order to get that second crop of corn.”

A lack of understanding and awareness is also part of the problem. “When a farmer doesn’t think that harvest speed is important, they have more loss. Likewise, if a farmer doesn’t think that combine adjustments are important they’ll have more loss. Those who realize that maintaining equipment is important, have less loss. Consequently, technical training in the field with the equipment could be beneficial. But the cost of reducing loss further, using current technology, may exceed the benefits. Farmers may be unwilling to pay or invest in loss reduction.”

In addition to harvest speed, the study identified several other factors contributing to grain loss: lack of truck regular maintenance; lack of adjustment to the combine at the platform; bad weather; bad road conditions; and a lack of employee training.

“What’s interesting is that the results from the survey were so mixed,” Goldsmith said. “Why wouldn’t farmers have agreed 100 percent that harvest speed contributes to loss? Insects and rodents seemed to be unimportant. Truck conditions and bad weather were the top factors to blame for loss, but truck conditions were mentioned by only 62 percent. These causes should be common knowledge so I don’t know why 100 percent of the responses didn’t agree that, for example, poor road and truck conditions contribute to loss. The lack of definitiveness about this may indicate  that loss is not a “front-of-mind” issue for managers, which, in turn, has significant implications for policy makers seeking to reduce post-harvest loss. Goldsmith believes that these tropical farmers have a variety of issues at hand that trump loss. “We may think of Brazil as sunshine and beautiful all the time, but farming is really tough in the tropics. There are pest pressures 24/7, soils are poor, there’s an extreme rainy season, distance to markets is great, and road conditions are very rough. All sorts of factors make farming tough, but this area of the world has the greatest potential to materially augment global grain supplies.”

For the study, an initial focus group of seven farmers was conducted to help frame the questions for an online survey. The survey respondents represent some of the largest farmers, not just in Mato Grosso, but in the world.

“This dominant class of medium- and large-tropical farm acreage operators who are producing most of the new grains are filling the gap between where we are now and where we need to be in 2050 to feed the world,” Goldsmith said. “Sure, we can expand our crop among the developed countries of the world, but we’re only helping at the margin. The potential for new grain producers on new land is coming from farmers in the Southern Hemisphere.”

The study entitled “Managerial factors affecting post-harvest loss: the case of Mato Grosso Brazil” was co-authored by Anamaria Gaudencia Martins and Altair Moura and was published in a 2014 issue of the International Journal of Agricultural Management.



Farmdocdaily receives team award

Published August 6, 2014
Aerial photo of U of I south farms

URBANA, Ill. – The farmdocDAILY team in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois received the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association 2013 Distinguished Extension and Outreach Team Award. The farmdocDAILY website provides useful, timely, research-based content by utilizing a cutting‐edge, user‐friendly dissemination strategy. It has led to widespread adoption of farmdocDAILY as a trusted information source. Since it was launched in March 2011, the site has received a total of 2.5 million pageviews. Usage has been growing at the remarkably fast rate of 7 percent per month.

“This award means a great deal to the farmdocDAILY team because it is a prestigious national award from an international scholarly association,” said team leader Scott Irwin. Other members are Mark Althouse, Ryan Batts, Jonathan Coppess, Paul Ellinger, A. Bryan Endres, Darrel Good, Chris Hurt (Purdue), Hongxia Jiao, Todd Kuethe, Marc Lovell, John Newton, Nick Paulson, Paul Peterson, Dwight Raab, Gary Schnitkey, Bruce Sherrick, and Carl Zulauf (Ohio State).



Symposium on Swaps, Clearing and Too Big to Fail

All Day Event
Illini Center, 200 S. Wacker, Chicago

Where will beef cows expand?

Published August 4, 2014

URBANA, Ill. - It is getting to be a well-repeated story. Beef cow numbers are at their lowest level since 1962, said a Purdue University Extension economist.

“Cattle and feeder cattle prices are at record highs, and feed prices have dropped. Beef consumers continue to eat beef and are rewarding the beef industry with very profitable returns. So when are beef producers going to expand the breeding herd, and in what regions of the country will that occur?” asked Chris Hurt.

To answer those questions, experts must first look at the areas of the country that had the biggest reductions in beef cow numbers due to drought, high feed prices, and financial losses, he said.

Since 2007, beef cow numbers have dropped by 12 percent, totaling 3.8 million head. The biggest declines were in the region with the most cows—the Southern Plains—which accounted for 1.6 million of the decline, he noted.

“Texas, the big beef cow state, had a reduction of 1.4 million head, an astonishing 36 percent of the nation’s total decline. That region’s expansion opportunities are very mixed due to lingering drought. About one-third of Texas remains in the three highest drought categories, D2-D4.  It’s important to note that parts of cow-dense eastern Texas are now out of drought, and the National Weather Service is forecasting some continued drought abatement by this fall for the region. In conclusion, lingering drought in the Southern Plains will tend to mean a slow expansion there,” Hurt said.

The second most important region for beef cows is the Southeast, which has had an 822,000-head beef cow reduction since 2007, or 21 percent of the nation’s total. The biggest reductions were in Tennessee and Kentucky and accounted for 59 percent of the region’s decline. The Southeast is generally in good shape for pastures as the impacts of the 2012 drought have passed, he noted.

The third most significant beef cow area is the Northern Plains, where beef cow numbers did not drop over the past seven years. “This probably means that producers in that region will be expanding numbers with large amounts of grazing land. Lower returns to grain production are expected to bring some conversion of land back to grazing in coming years as well,” he said.

The Central Plains are the fourth most important area, and drought continues to linger in Kansas and parts of Nebraska, slowing their expansion, he noted.

The fifth most important beef cow region is the western Corn Belt from Minnesota to Missouri. That region had a reduction of 566,000 cows, or 15 percent of the national reduction.

“Over the last seven years, this region has been most dramatically affected by the ethanol boom. Traditionally a low-grain-price region, many farmers once talked of “walking” their corn to town in the form of value-added livestock. Now hauling corn to the local ethanol plant is often the preferred marketing plan. The ethanol impact is much less important in Missouri, where more marginal land is suited to beef cows, so that state is expected to lead the coming expansion for that region,” the expert said.

According to Hurt, the rest of the country has a mixed situation. Severe drought in California and other parts of the West and Pacific Northwest are going to prevent expansion in some of those areas. On the other hand, the eastern Corn Belt and the Northeast will see some expansion, but these have become relatively minor beef cow regions.

The latest June Cattle inventory update from USDA does not answer the question of whether expansion is under way because USDA was not funded to collect mid-year cattle inventory data one year ago. Numbers from January seemed to suggest that heifer retention was up 2 percent, signaling expansion. But the June inventory was 2 percent lower than two years ago, providing inconsistent signals, he said.

“Low slaughter numbers seem to be signaling that heifers are being pulled away from slaughter and toward breeding herd retention. The number of cattle processed this year is down 7 percent, a number greater than would have been expected in the absence of expansion. Cow and heifer slaughter have been low as well,” Hurt noted.

Finished cattle prices have reached record highs over $160 in recent weeks. In 2013, finished cattle prices averaged about $126. At the start of 2014, forecasts were for prices to average in the mid-$130s. Now, it appears that the 2014 yearly average price will be close to $150. The mid-$150s are expected for the remained of the year with prices dropping to the low-$150s for the first-half of next year, he said.

“When will expansion begin and where will it occur? Clearly the profit incentive has returned more powerfully than was expected. Pastures and ranges have returned in some regions and feed is more available, but drought is limiting forages in other significant areas. This means the national beef cow expansion will be slowed and that tight beef supplies will be with the country for several more years,” Hurt said.