SDSU, California company join to improve switchgrass yield

California-based Ceres, Inc., will announce today that it is sponsoring research at South Dakota State University in Brookings to develop improved switchgrass for the northern Great Plains.

California-based Ceres, Inc., will announce today that it is sponsoring research at South Dakota State University in Brookings to develop improved switchgrass for the northern Great Plains.

The fast-growing native prairie grass is seen by some as an ideal raw material for a new generation of biofuels made from non-food crops.

SDSU President David Chicoine said in a prepared release that the new agreement between Ceres and SDSU not only benefits South Dakota, but ultimately may help supply America's energy needs.

"This agreement continues SDSU's excellent track record in developing effective collaborations with private industry," Chicoine said. Financial details of the five-year research and development agreement were not disclosed.

Based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Ceres is a leading developer of high-yielding energy crops that can be planted as feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol production.


SDSU plant breeder Arvid Boe will lead field and greenhouse research, which will involve cross-breeding and selections supported by Ceres technology that makes the development process more efficient and predictable.

Once an acceptable line can be developed, it is expected that Ceres will eventually help develop a marketable seed, said SDSU Vice President for Research Kevin Kephart.

"There's not a commercialization agreement yet, but once we're ready to commercialize something, Ceres' expertise would help SDSU to get switchgrass seed on the market," said Kephart.

"What Ceres brings to the table is a very strong capability in biotechnology. We're developing that ourselves here, but certainly a broader effort in a public-private partnership like this just brings you more tools and more personnel to develop something that can be used by farmers," he said.

Peter Mascia, Ceres vice president of product development, said South Dakota has been a key supporter of cellulosic biofuels, and switchgrass, in particular.

"Dr. Boe has decades of experience in switchgrass and is regarded in the industry as a leading expert in upland types. This joint product development program allows us to expand our existing switchgrass breeding efforts for what we believe will be an important biofuel production region."

He noted that improving yield and plant composition will have a significant impact on economics for farmers and biorefineries as the industry expands.

That won't be overnight.


Kephart said SDSU made the decision nearly 20 years ago to stick with switchgrass development. He said the Department of Energy has had a biomass feedstock program for 25 years and has supported research on switchgrass, which it viewed as a model species.

The government plans to have a celluosic plant active no later than 2012. Kephart believes the industry will be commercially viable by 2020.

"SDSU made a decision 18 years ago to keep that program going with the belief that that this day would come and the need for cellulosic feedstock would be critical," he said.

"As a consequence we have one of the most advanced programs for switchgrass breeding, genetics and agronomy," he said. He believes the latest agreement will place SDSU in a more competitive position for future government grants.

Founded as a plant genomics company, Ceres holds one of the world's largest proprietary collections of fully sequenced plant genes. The privately held company also licenses its technology and traits to other organizations.

The discussions that resulted in this agreement have been going on for several months, Kephart said.

It's already become obvious to those in the biofuels industry, he said, that the next phase will be the development of more cellulosic feedstocks for biofuel production. Even the corn ethanol industry is looking to use more cellulosic material in the form of "corn stover," or corn leaves and stalks.

"We're not looking to displace corn or to take a position that switchgrass is better than corn," Kephart said, noting that each crop will have its own production niche.


Switchgrass has numerous benefits, said Boe.

"Switchgrass is tolerant of a wide range of environmental conditions, and compared with many other perennial grasses and conventional crop plants, it produces relatively large amounts of biomass under both good and poor growing conditions," he said.

Corn must be replanted each year, but switchgrass is a perennial that has a low nitrogen requirement to grow -- an important point, since nitrogen fertilizers compose one of the highest costs of production with any crop.

Also as a perennial, Kephart said, farmers won't have the costs associated with establishing a new crop each year. The grass can easily be incorporated into a no-till crop rotation, he said.

Switchgrass can be harvested similar to hay but the labor demands would be less stringent. Farmers would be growing switchgrass for cellulosic, not nutritional content, so harvest time isn't critical.

Switchgrass is abundant in the Mitchell area, Kephart said. It typically grows shoulder-high to seven feet in height.

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