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Switchgrass as forage and biofuel feedstock: Effect of nitrogen fertilization rate on the quality of biomass harvested in late summer and early fall

Ameen, Asif, Tang, Chaochen, Liu, Jintong, Han, Lipu, Xie, Guang Hui
Field crops research 2019 v.235 pp. 154-162
Aridisols, Panicum virgatum, acid detergent fiber, ash content, autumn, biofuels, biomass production, cellulose, crude protein, energy crops, ethanol, feedstocks, fertilizer rates, forage quality, frost, growing season, harvest date, hemicellulose, leaching, neutral detergent fiber, nitrates, nitrogen, nitrogen fertilizers, risk, sandy soils, summer, warm season grasses, wastelands, China
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) is a perennial warm-season grass which has great potential as a forage or bioenergy crop in marginal land. This study was conducted to determine whether nitrogen (N) fertilization could affect biomass quality of switchgrass harvested in late summer and early fall. The effects of four N fertilizer application rates (0, 60, 120, and 240 kg N ha−1) and two harvest times (late summer and early fall) on the quality components of forage and biofuel feedstock and theoretical ethanol yield (TEY) were investigated on a sandy wasteland (Aridisol) in Inner Mongolia, China during the growing seasons of 2015 and 2016. Soil NO3− content was also examined in response to N application rates. Application of 60 kg N ha−1 significantly increased switchgrass crude protein (CP) content, protein yield, and TEY (p < 0.05), but did not affect other quality parameters of forage and biofuel feedstock. Compared with the late summer harvest, CP content and protein yield were significantly lower, while TEY was significantly higher in the early fall harvest (p < 0.05); however, cellulose, hemicellulose, and ash contents showed no significant differences between the two harvest times. Acid detergent fiber (ADF) and neutral detergent fiber (NDF) contents were significantly lower for harvest in early fall than in late summer (p < 0.05). Soil NO3− content in early fall harvest increased significantly with increasing N application rate (p < 0.05), and was lower than that in the switchgrass green-up stage. These findings together with our results on biomass yield and apparent soil N balance suggest that a lower rate of N application appears sufficient to produce good quality forage as well as biomass without negatively affecting feedstock quality, while avoiding the risk of NO3− loss via leaching on a sandy soil. Switchgrass forage quality would be high during summer in terms of CP content, although delaying harvest until fall or even after a killing frost could provide better quality feedstock for bioenergy production.