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Grasses for biofuels: A low water-use alternative for cold desert agriculture?

Porensky, Lauren M., Davison, Jay, Leger, Elizabeth A., Miller, W. Wally, Goergen, Erin M., Espeland, Erin K., Carroll-Moore, Erin M.
Biomass and bioenergy 2014 v.66 pp. 133
Bothriochloa ischaemum, Leymus cinereus, Thinopyrum elongatum, arid zones, biofuels, biomass production, cold, cool season grasses, energy crops, feedstocks, fine roots, irrigation rates, rain, root systems, rooting, soil, warm season grasses, weeds, Nevada
In arid regions, reductions in the amount of available agricultural water are fueling interest in alternative, low water-use crops. Perennial grasses have potential as low water-use biofuel crops. However, little is known about which perennial grasses can produce high quantity, high quality yields with low irrigation on formerly high-input agricultural fields in arid regions. We monitored biomass production, weed resistance, rooting depth, and root architecture of nine perennial grasses under multiple irrigation treatments in western Nevada. Under a low irrigation treatment (71 ± 9 cm irrigation water annually), cool-season grasses produced more biomass and were more weed-resistant than warm-season grasses. With additional irrigation (120 ± 12 cm water annually), warm- and cool-season grasses had similar biomass production, but cool-season species remained more weed-resistant. Among species within each grass type, we observed high variability in performance. Two cool-season species (Elytrigia elongata and Leymus cinereus) and one warm-season species (Bothriochloa ischaemum) performed better than the other tested species. Root depth was not correlated with biomass production, but species with deeper roots had fewer weeds. Abundance of fine roots (but not large roots) was correlated with increased biomass and fewer weeds. Both L. cinereus and E. elongata had deep root systems dominated by fine roots, while B. ischaemum had many fine roots in shallow soil but few roots in deeper soil. Cool-season grasses (particularly E. elongata, L. cinereus, and other species with abundant fine roots) may be worthy of further attention as potential biofuel crops for cold desert agriculture.