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Switchgrass Biofuel Production on Reclaimed Surface Mines: I. Soil Quality and Dry Matter Yield

Brown, Carol, Griggs, Thomas, Keene, Travis, Marra, Mike, Skousen, Jeff
BioEnergy research 2016 v.9 no.1 pp. 31-39
Panicum virgatum, agricultural soils, bioenergy industry, biofuels, biomass, cropland, cultivars, dry matter accumulation, energy crops, feed requirements, feedstocks, fertilizer application, field experimentation, food crops, fuel production, human population, population growth, sludge, soil fertility, soil quality, topsoil, warm season, Northeastern United States, West Virginia
Growing food crops for biofuel on productive agricultural lands may become less viable as requirements to feed a growing human population increase. This has increased interest in growing cellulosic biofuel feedstocks on marginal lands. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.), a warm-season perennial, is a viable bioenergy crop candidate because it produces high yields on marginal lands under low fertility conditions. In other studies, switchgrass dry matter (DM) yields on marginal croplands varied from 5.0 to 10.0 Mg ha⁻¹ annually. West Virginia contains immense areas of reclaimed surface mined lands that could support a switchgrass-based biofuel industry, but yield data on these lands are lacking. Field experiments were established in 2008 to determine yields of three switchgrass cultivars on two West Virginia mine sites. One site reclaimed with topsoil and municipal sludge produced biomass yields of 19.0 Mg DM ha⁻¹ for Cave-in-Rock switchgrass after the sixth year, almost double the varieties Shawnee and Carthage, at 10.0 and 5.7 Mg ha⁻¹, respectively. Switchgrass yields on another site with no topsoil were 1.0 Mg ha⁻¹ after the sixth year, with little variation among cultivars. A second experiment was conducted at two other mine sites with a layer of topsoil over gray overburden. Cave-in-Rock was seeded with fertilizer applications of 0, 34, and 68 kg N-P₂O₅-K₂O ha⁻¹. After the third year, the no fertilizer treatment averaged biomass yields of 0.3 Mg ha⁻¹, while responses to the other two rates averaged 1.1 and 2.0 Mg ha⁻¹, respectively. Fertilization significantly increased yields on reclaimed mine soils. Where mine soil fertility was good, yields were similar to those reported on agricultural soils in the Northeastern USA.