Establishing miscanthus from seed rather than rhizome has taken a step nearer to commercial reality with field trials of three promising hybrid varieties getting under way this year.
It’s predicted that miscanthus plugs propagated from seed could be commercially available to farmers as soon as 2019 and seed for direct drilling available a further few years after this.
And with the demand dedicated biomass and bioenergy crops growing at a rapid rate, the need for seed is very real. If the government’s 2050 carbon targets are to be met, the UK will need to increase the area of land devoted to bioenergy crops by over 1 million hectares.
According to research commissioned for Defra, published in 2012, the UK could grow up to 3.63 million hectares of short rotation coppice (SRC) and miscanthus without affecting food production, because they thrive on lower grade, marginal land.
The field trials will see the new hybrids up-scaled, planted out and trialled on a commercial scale and mark the second phase of a research project, named MUST (Miscanthus Upscaling Technology) that’s set to increase the cost-efficiency of Britain’s leading energy crop, miscanthus.
Switching from rhizome to seed has the potential to offer huge benefits for growers, lowering planting costs, improving crop characteristics, yield and consistency.
Currently miscanthus is grown from rhizome. The plant does not produce seeds and the only way to propagate the crop is to lift the rhizomes, split and replant them. “You can only propagate rhizome once every three years, as it needs to grow to the right size. One hectare of propagated rhizome crop yields 13-20 ha of root stock. With seed, a one hectare crossing block can produce 2000 ha of new crop, so the potential is vast,” says scientific project leader Professor John Clifton Brown from Aberystwyth University.
The MUST project is led by commercial partner Terravesta, with world leading plant breeding science by Aberystwyth University and partners including the University of Aberdeen, US biotechnology company Ceres Inc, DEFRA, the NFU, E.ON, Biocatalysts, Blankney Estates, Assured Energy Crops, the NFU, Bell Brother Nurseries, Ceres, Inc., Nutriss and, Edwards Farms Machinery and is funded through the government’s Agricultural Technologies Strategy programme.
“It’s taken a huge team effort to get this far and after 10 years of dedicated research and an extensive breeding programme, we now have three candidate hybrid crosses that have been narrowed down from thousands of crosses between different accessions from Asia which will be up-scaled in the MUST project,” says John.
William Cracroft-Eley, chairman of commercial project leader Terravesta, explains that switching from rhizome to seed has the potential to offer huge benefits for growers. “The project will ultimately lower the barrier for entry on farm through cost saving. The resulting crop will perform better and have traits that could increase desirability for the end user.
“This will offer us a very real ability to increase the UK growing area from the 8000 hectares we have today, to the potential of 350,000 ha in the future. If you want to have a crop that can be scalable to millions of acres, then it has to be seed-based.
“Without doubt, the energy market demand is expanding and this will continue. Terravesta’s interest is in expanding the market, but also in expanding value,” says William.
The scope of having successful seed varieties may be huge, because it opens up new opportunities for market expansion. “The benefit that a seed based plant can deliver is that it allows for rapid upscaling and planting,” adds William.
“In the meantime planting miscanthus from rhizome using well tried and tested techniques and agronomy can deliver attractive and reliable net margins for years to come. Farmers are offered a long-term fixed price contract, as Terravesta is delivering market certainty with long term index-linked grower contracts. Over a 15-year period the average net margin for miscanthus is estimated to be £528 per hectare.