UNL researchers study grass restoration benefits

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Corn lays nearly flat in a field south of Keystone, Iowa, on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. A storm slammed the Midwest with straight line winds of up to 100 miles per hour on Monday, gaining strength as it plowed through Iowa farm fields, flattening corn and bursting grain bins still filled with tens of millions of bushels of last year’s harvest. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette via AP)

LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN) – University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) researchers are studying how restoring perennial grasses amid cropland could benefit Nebraska.

According to Daren Redfearn, the Husker forage systems specialist leading the research, the four-year $4 million project will be conducted on UNL research plots and 12 to 15 farm sites in western Nebraska.

The project, Expanding the Conversion of Habitat in the Northern Great Plains Ecosystem (EXCHANGE), is funded through the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

EXCHANGE’s goal is to reduce water and fertilizer use on crops by 25%.

“We said the easiest way to do that would be to just not grow on 25% of the area under those pivots and not fertilize it and not water it,” Redfearn said to Nebraska Today.

Researchers will plant “prairie strips” on less productive cropland areas and corners of irrigated areas not easily reached by the pivots.

The prairie strips will contain species of native perennial warm-season grasses, such as switchgrass, big bluestem and Indiangrass.

“What makes our proposed technology unique and innovative is using limited irrigation on native perennial tallgrasses within irrigated row-cropped landscapes,” Redfearn said.

The researchers will use limited irrigation on native perennial tallgrasses within irrigated row-cropped landscapes, according to Redfearn. They believe that the limited irrigation of these grasses will produce more biomass, organic matter used as fuel, than other grasses typically planted in the region.

New biorefineries, facilities where biomass is converted to energy, may be constructed in the region.

“You can’t haul those bioenergy grasses much further than 40 or 50 miles and make that cost-effective,” Redfearn told Nebraska Today. “But even if that doesn’t happen, there still are plenty of livestock in that area that can utilize those grasses. They’ll get used one way or another.”

Researchers predict that this approach will reduce irrigation water use, improve groundwater sustainability, reduce fertilizer and herbicide use, increase soil carbon and fertility, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase biodiversity, and encourage the growth of a new bioenergy market.

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