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Biomass producers can bring in cash while establishing switchgrass

Published December 15, 2016
Switchgrass growing with corn
Switchgrass (foreground) growing with corn

URBANA, Ill. – Farmers looking to cash in on the growing biomass market may be scared off by profit losses during long establishment periods. But a new study from the University of Illinois provides a workaround.

“We have shown that farmers can grow corn as a companion crop with switchgrass to generate revenue in the establishment year,” says U of I agronomist D.K. Lee.

The idea is simple: farmers plant corn as usual, but also sow switchgrass seed in the same field approximately one week earlier. Corn shoots up quickly, leaving small switchgrass plants to establish under the corn canopy. The corn can then be harvested and sold to provide an income stream in the first year.

“The following year, switchgrass emerges early like other perennial grasses starting from crowns,” Lee says. By the end of that second year, switchgrass is typically able to produce at full capacity.

Planting corn as a companion to switchgrass is not a new idea; other studies have shown it can work. But Lee says that no clear guidelines have been established with respect to corn seeding rates or nitrogen application rates.

The experiment looked at three corn seeding rates: 28,000 seeds per acre, the standard rate at the time the study was done, and 24,000 (85 percent), and 20,000 (70 percent). It also investigated three nitrogen application rates: 0, 100, and 200 pounds per acre. After the first year, no additional nitrogen was applied. Switchgrass stand density and biomass yield was tracked over three years.

The presence of switchgrass did not negatively impact corn yield, but the addition of a corn companion crop did result in lower switchgrass density at first. Density and yield started to bounce back in the second and third years.

The study also included an economic analysis of various scenarios. “Net returns for all treatment combinations with corn were significantly more profitable than without corn, especially when fertilized with 100 or 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre during the establishment year,” Lee says.

Lee and his collaborators conclude that the use of corn as a companion crop with switchgrass can get farmers through the establishment year income gap.

The article, “Establishing switchgrass with a corn companion crop to improve economic profitability,” is published in Agronomy Journal. The study was funded by the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I and the Energy Biosciences Institute.

2016 Legislative Update webinar

Published December 15, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – With the 2016 legislative calendar coming to a close, conversations are occurring regarding state and federal legislative agendas that will affect local governments. Login to the University of Illinois Extension webinar Jan. 19 from noon to 1 p.m. for an update on State of Illinois legislation.

Derke Price, equity partner with Ancel Glink, will present an update of state legislative changes that will impact local government during the coming year.

Price represents municipalities, park districts, school districts, townships, libraries, and special agencies. His practice includes appeals and trial work in federal and state courts and concentrates in construction, land use and development, and environmental matters.

Mike Belarmino, associate legislative director for finance and intergovernmental affairs at the National Association of Counties (NACo), will discuss federal legislative changes. Belarmino is responsible for all policy development and lobbying for the association in the areas of municipal finance and tax, elections, pensions, and county and tribal government relationships. He also serves as associate general counsel for NACo.

Each year, hundreds of elected and appointed government officials and administrators improve their knowledge and skills through professional development opportunities offered by University of Illinois Extension. Local government officials benefit from the advanced instructional tools and broad expertise that instructors bring to these education and professional development programs.

The webinar is free, but pre-registration is required. For more information, contact Kathie Brown, community and economic development educator, U of I Extension, at





News Source:

Kathie Brown, 309-255-9189

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Nitrogen and the 2016 corn crop

Published December 13, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – The 2016 cropping season was a good one for corn in Illinois, according to University of Illinois crop scientist Emerson Nafziger.

“Planting was on time into good soil conditions, and crop development proceeded with little stress, though June was warm and dry in most areas. The current prediction is for statewide corn yield to be 202 bushels per acre, edging out the previous record of 200 bushels set in 2014,” Nafziger says.

Soil temperature and moisture conditions in May and June were favorable for mineralization, or the release of nitrogen from soil organic matter. This increased the amount of plant-available nitrogen in the soil during vegetative growth in 2016.

With a good nitrogen supply and plenty of sunshine, corn plants in most fields were dark green and growing rapidly by late May and early June. Even strips in trials that received little or no nitrogen fertilizer stayed green into the middle of June, much later than normal.

The benefits of this good supply of nitrogen carried through the season, and meant that the crop needed less fertilizer nitrogen than normal.

“Across 26 on-farm nitrogen rate trials, yields averaged 225 bushels per acre at an average nitrogen rate of only 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre. That is more yield with less nitrogen than we saw in 2015, when June was wet,” Nafziger notes.

Not only did relatively low nitrogen rates produce high yields in 2016, but timing and form of nitrogen made less difference in yield than usual. Ammonium is stable in the soil, while nitrate can move with water through the soil. If most of the nitrogen is nitrate and heavy rain falls, nitrogen loss can be substantial. That didn’t happen in 2016, mostly because of dry June conditions.

Nafziger and his colleagues also studied nitrogen application timing in 2016, and found that timing made almost no difference in how corn responded to nitrogen rate. In particular, late-split nitrogen, in which application is split between planting and tasseling time, produced no more yield than when all of the nitrogen was applied at planting. With no additional yield to cover the cost of the late application, late application reduced net income.

“We saw nitrogen at its best in 2016,” Nafziger says. “It was present when the crop needed it, and the supply of nitrogen from soil organic matter, along with little loss, meant that the crop needed less fertilizer than usual, even though uptake and yield were high. We can’t depend on this to happen every year, of course, but the common idea that ‘high yields require high fertilizer nitrogen rates’ clearly did not hold true in 2016. This should increase our confidence, especially in years with dry springs, that nitrogen applied at normal rates will meet the needs of the crop without our needing to pour on more nitrogen to reach high yields.”

For more information, please visit the Bulletin.

Investigating US soybean export potential

Published December 12, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – Despite strong U.S. soybean export numbers in the early part of the marketing year driven by Chinese imports, USDA’s  World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report for December maintains the forecast of 2016-17 marketing-year exports of U.S. soybeans at 2.05 billion bushels. According to University of Illinois agricultural economist Todd Hubbs, the lack of change in the soybean export forecast surprised some soybean market observers.

“The potential for strong South American soybean export competition in the second half of the marketing year is the limiting factor in expanded U.S. soybean exports,” Hubbs says.  

The USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service World Production Report estimated the size of the 2016 crop for major South American producers (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Uruguay) at 6.15 billion bushels and forecasted the 2016-17 soybean crop to be 6.40 billion bushels. “The report noted favorable planting and growing conditions in Brazil for the soybean crop that allowed early planting and the potential for an early start to the soybean harvest,” Hubbs continues. “The early harvest could begin as soon as January. Compared to 2015-16 production, the Brazilian crop is forecast to be 202 million bushels larger and the Argentine crop is expected to be 7.35 million bushels larger in 2016-17. Although the actual crop size will not be known for several months in South America, the current weather conditions point to a large Brazilian crop with some concerns for Argentinian soybean production due to a dry weather pattern.”

Hubbs says that Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay are major soybean exporters in South America. Estimates for Brazilian soybean exports in 2015-16 are at 1.99 billion bushels, and 2016-17 Brazilian soybean exports are forecast at 2.15 billion bushels. Argentine forecasts for 2016-17 were reduced by approximately 9 million bushels in the December report to 330.7 million bushels. This forecast is a 33.8 million bushel reduction in Argentinian soybean exports from the 2015-16 estimate of 364.5 million bushels. Estimates for Paraguayan soybean exports in 2016 are at 194.74 million bushels, and 2016-17 Paraguayan soybean exports are forecast at the same level of 194.74 million bushels. Overall, South American exports for Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay are forecast to be 2.67 billion bushels for 2016-17. This forecast is 113.9 million bushels larger than the 2015-16 estimate of 2.56 billion bushels.

“The 2.05 billion bushel forecast for U.S. soybean exports during the 2016-17 marketing year is the largest on record,” Hubbs says. “When confronted with large South American supplies, the soybean export magnitude is due to the demand from China.” China is forecast to import 3.169 billion bushels of soybeans in the 2016-17 marketing year. The Chinese import forecast level is 101.78 million bushels higher than the 3.058 billion bushel import estimates for the 2015-16 marketing year. 

Census data on U.S. soybean exports to China in the 2014-15 and 2015-2016 marketing years indicated 1.085 billion bushels and 1.116 billion bushels respectively. Current U.S. Census Bureau trade data for soybeans is only available through October but shows strong export growth to China.

“Soybean exports to China through October 2016 are at 418 million bushels—30 percent larger than soybean export levels in the 2015-16 marketing year over the same period,” Hubbs says. “U.S. soybean exports to China exhibit a pattern of strong export levels in the first half of the marketing year and then dissipation through the second half of the marketing year as South American production becomes available to the world market.”

Over the last five years, U.S. soybean exports to China slowed appreciably in January and February. When considering soybean exports to China over the last five marketing years, over 85 percent of total U.S. soybean exports for a given marketing year were complete by the end of February in all marketing years concerned except 2011-12.

Through the week ending on Dec. 3, the Foreign Agricultural Service Export Sales report set net sales of U.S. soybeans at 53.71 million bushels sold during the week. “The continued strength in soybean sales is driven mostly by Chinese demand,” Hubbs says.

Cumulative export inspections for the marketing year were reported at 957.33 million bushels. Outstanding sales through the same period are reported at 630.52 million bushels. Total commitments of soybean exports as a percent of the WASDE forecast level of 2.05 billion bushels are at 77 percent. Total commitments of soybean exports as a percent of the WASDE forecast level at this point in the marketing year ranged from 60 percent to 84 percent over the last five marketing years and place this year’s level slightly above average.

“Soybean export levels appear sustainable,” Hubbs says, “but there is understandable caution related to the U.S. soybean export forecast. Although the potential exists for surpassing the soybean export forecast this marketing year, developments over the next few weeks in South American crop production and Chinese soybean buying patterns will be crucial in determining U.S. soybean export levels and, in turn, possible price movements in soybean markets.”  


Learn small farming skills from your desk this winter

Published December 9, 2016

URBANA, Ill. - Even in the dead of winter, you can learn to raise strawberries, microgreens, and cut flowers.

“Your fields and gardens may be snowed over, but it is the perfect time to develop your skills in small farming and local food production,” says Andy Larson, a University of Illinois Extension local food systems and small farms educator.

University of Illinois Extension will once again be hosting the Small Farms Winter Webinar Series featuring practical, lunch-hour presentations on small farm enterprises and strategies. Log in every Thursday at noon, Jan. 19 through March 30. 

“Because farm life is seldom convenient during the colder months, it’s nice to have these down-to-earth learning opportunities available right at your fingertips. No gloves or long johns required,” says, Larson, who will be providing a lesson on growing hobby farms into businesses.  “Winter is great for planning your next growing season, so let’s talk about ways you can improve or diversify your small farm.”

The winter webinar series will include presentations on buying quality hay, rejuvenating old fruit trees, mite problems in honeybees, planning windbreaks, mulching vegetables, soil management in high tunnels, and new food safety rules. Each hour-long webinar will be presented by an Extension educator. Webinars will also be recorded and archived for future viewing.

Registration is free. Sign up for one or all webinars at Registrants will be sent a webinar reminder, log-on instructions, and instructions on how to access the archived recording. If you do not have broadband internet capable of streaming video, call your local Extension office to see if they offer live viewing.

If you need a reasonable accommodation to participate in this program, please contact your local Extension office.

Webinar series schedule:

Jan. 19 - ABCs of Strawberry Plasticulture Production, Bronwyn Aly, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Jan. 26 - Buying Hay: Quality vs. Cost, Jamie Washburn, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Feb. 2 - Slow Flowers: Small-Scale Cut Flower Production, Candice Hart, University of Illinois Extension Horticulture Educator

Feb. 9 - Out with the Old: Pruning Old and Neglected Fruit Trees, Grant McCarty, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Feb. 16 - Small Commercial Microgreen Production, Zack Grant, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Feb. 23 - Food Safety Needs for Midwest Produce Growers,  Angela Shaw, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Food Safety Specialist

Mar. 2 - Growing Your Hobby Farm into a Business, Andy Larson, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Mar. 9 - Do Your Bees Have PMS (Parasitic Mite Syndrome), Doug Gucker, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Mar. 16 - Maximizing Windbreaks on Your Farm, David Shiley, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Mar. 23 - Benefits of Mulching Vegetables, James Theuri, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Mar. 30 - Soil Management for High Tunnels, Nathan Johanning, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Christmas tree trivia

Published December 9, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – We may put up a Christmas tree every year, but few of us are aware of their history and significance. University of Illinois Extension educator Ron Wolford enlightens us.

In 1856, Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States, was the first president to place a Christmas tree in the White House.

Thomas Edison's assistant, Edward Johnson, came up with the idea of electric lights for Christmas trees in 1882. Christmas tree lights were first mass-produced in 1890.

The tradition of an official Chicago Christmas tree was initiated in 1913 when one was lit by Mayor Carter H. Harrison in Grant Park.

From 1887 to 1933, a fishing schooner called the "Christmas Ship" would tie up at the Clark Street Bridge in Chicago and sell Michigan spruce trees to Chicagoans.

Since 1971, the Province of Nova Scotia has presented the Boston Christmas tree to the people of Boston. The tree is a gift of thanks for relief supplies received from Boston after the explosion of a ship in Halifax, Nova Scotia Harbor. Part of the city was leveled, killing and injuring thousands.

In 1979, the National Christmas Tree was not lit, except for the top ornament. This was done to honor American hostages in Iran.

Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states and Canada.

The average growing time for a Christmas tree is seven years.

Between 25 and 30 million live Christmas trees are sold in the United States each year.

Approximately, 350 million Christmas trees are currently growing on tree farms in the United States.

Check out the University of Illinois Extension website Christmas Trees & More for more information:

News Source:

Ron Wolford , 773-233-2900

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension