Praises sung for giant perennial grass

David Buckleigh, of Miscanthus New Zealand in Rotorua, inspects the miscanthus shelter belt on the Burnham property. Photo by Maureen Bishop.
David Buckleigh, of Miscanthus New Zealand in Rotorua, inspects the miscanthus shelter belt on the Burnham property. Photo by Maureen Bishop.
It can grow up to four metres tall, provide shelter for animals and pasture, be used as fuel, animal bedding and fodder, and provide habitat for bees, insects, birds and skinks.

As well, pivot irrigators can pass through it.

It is the giant perennial grass, miscanthus.

The benefits of the grass were outlined recently at a field day on a Burnham farm, the site of a research project.

The objectives of the Lincoln University research project are to improve the profitability and the sustainability of dairy farming by creating shelter from the most energy efficient bio energy plant in the temperate hemisphere.

The project is supported by Westland Milk Products, DairyNZ, AgResearch and Bio-Protection.

Professor Steve Wratten, of Lincoln University said the grass was exciting researchers because of its 15 or 16 possible uses, advantages which no other bio plant had.

While the research project was based around shelter and it was not a food trial, the grass had proved to be quite tasty for cattle.

It was also a potential source of renewable diesel and could go straight into the tank, he said.

Miscanthus shelter belts were first established in four paddocks on Mark Williams' Aylesbury Dairies property in spring 2012.

Three further paddocks were planted this year. The non-invasive grass was planted in seven-metre wide strips to allow a forage harvester to be used.

The plants are available either as rhizomes or plantlets, with plantlets giving the best establishment rate.

Cultivation is not essential and plants can be planted directly into holes in the soil. Adequate water is essential.

Under irrigation plant growth is impressive and plant survival of greater than 90% is possible.

The grass can grow four metres in the third season after planting, for 20 years.

Once established, the plant naturally senesces in winter and resprouts in spring.

If harvested, miscanthus can be cut as new spring growth begins.

PhD student Chris Littlejohn said the Japanese tall grass was grown in Europe, America and Canada as biofuel.

It came into New Zealand in 2006 and was first grown over the whole paddock, cut and baled for use as fuel.

Now it was being used to create shelter.

The project includes monitoring pasture yield variation within paddocks where the grass is planted and across the farm.

It also includes studying the role of shelter in reducing evapotranspiration and ecosystem benefits such as providing habitat for bumblebees, insects, earthworms and skinks.

Peter Brown, of Miscanthus New Zealand, said the full benefits of the grass as animal feed were still not known but indications were that it was equivalent to good quality barley straw.

The grass was a researcher's dream as there was so much not known about it, he said.

It was very efficient in the use of nutrients, tolerant of low-fertility soils and there were only two viruses known to affect it, neither of which was found in New Zealand.

He spoke of the use of the grass as a renewable diesel, with a tonne of miscanthus capable of providing 300 litres net of biodiesel.

Professor Wratten said his vision was for a mobile machine on a truck which could travel to farms and convert the grass into fuel.

Mr Williams said miscanthus had proved palatable to cows when about 200 animals accidentally got into one shelter belt.

They had stripped the leaves, but the plants would regenerate.

 

 - by Maureen Bishop