Research at the University of Northern Iowa is underway to determine what mixes of prairie hay are best for turning into biomass to generate electricity. UNI graduate students Michele Suhrer of Watertown, South Dakata and Cassy Bohnet of Hartley, Iowa are working on the five year project.
Suhrer says UNI’s Tallgrass Prairie Center has partnered with Cedar Falls Utilities, Iowa State University, and the Black Hawk County Conservation Board on the research. "We’re looking at providing an alternative crop for farmers to harvest," Suhrer says, "because most farmers already have the basic haying equipment to harvest the biomass."
Bohnet says, this spring, they’ll plant four different mixtures of prairie species on 100 acres of land. She says they’re renting the land from the Black Hawk County Conservation Board. Suhrer says the prairie hay can be grown on "marginal" land, possibly saving Conservation Reserve Program land from being turned back into row crop production.
Suhrer says, "If we can use marginal land, rather than the high quality soil that all the corn and soybeans are being grown on, we won’t take away from food production – but it will still benefit the environment by producing the biomass." Suhrer says using marginal land would reduce soil erosion and provide better habitat for wildlife. Eventually, the prairie hay biomass will undergo a test burn at Cedar Falls Utilities. The Iowa Legislature this year awarded the Tallgrass Prairie Center $330,000 for the research.