Louisiana and its neighboring states have the potential to raise nonfood crops for biofuels because they have suitable available land and a long growing season, said Michael Blazier, assistant professor of forestry at the LSU AgCenter's Hill Farm Research Station near Homer, La.
Speaking at the recent Ark-La-Tex Forestry Field, Blazier focused his presentation on forests as a source of biofuel. He said his purpose was to raise awareness about this emerging market opportunity.
Blazier said switchgrass, Indian grass and big bluestem grass are three varieties he has planted among pine trees on at the Hill Farm Research Station. He's evaluating them as sources of biomass for the production of ethanol and how they grow around and among a thinned stand of loblolly pine trees.
He said switchgrass could be a good choice because it's a summer perennial native to Louisiana, requires low amounts of herbicide and fertilizer to get established, requires little or no management, is tolerant to both drought and floods, grows well in partial shade and produces high yields.
“Louisiana has the diversity, climate and infrastructure for biofuels,” Blazier said.
Blazier was one of four presenters at the field day, which was co-sponsored by the LSU AgCenter, Forest Landowners Association and the Louisiana Forestry Association.
“We use these field days as a way to educate people in the industry,” said Allen Nipper, resident director at the station and director of the LSU AgCenter's North Central region.
Among the estimated 200 people from the Ark-La-Tex area who attended the field day was Darryl Hunkpillar with the Oklahoma Forest Service in Broken Bow, Okla. A forest water quality specialist, he said he attended the field day because he always learns something new whenever he attends one.
“This is wonderful for landowners,” said Ed Smith, president of the Louisiana Forestry Association and a forester with Weyerhaeuser.
Tom Sale, who owns forestland in Claiborne and Webster parishes, agreed. The field day is “a way to keep up with some of the latest thinking. The problems they talk about here are the problems I have on my property,” he said.
Diversifying forests by combining timber and cattle in agro-forests was addressed by Terry Clason with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service. “If you are going to grow saw timber on small tracts of land, you need to allow room for them (trees) to grow,” Clason said.
Clason, who previously worked as a forester at the Hill Farm station, stood in a stand of pine trees where he had conducted years of research with grazing cattle below the pines until his retirement from that career. The advantages, he said, include enhanced management of the trees from the fertilization programs for the grasses and regular income from the cattle operation while the trees grow to market size.
Grazing cattle in timber stands is called silvo-pasture. Clason said landowners need to consider choices of grasses, fertilization, whether to graze animals or harvest hay and what kind of animals — cattle, sheep, goats, horses — to put into a silvo-pasture.
Larger trees that can be sold as saw timber rather than as pulpwood need room to grow and more time to reach market size.
While wider spacing means fewer trees, it enhances the growth of the trees because they have less competition and more room to grow, Clason said.
But landowners can use the space between the growing trees.
He said some options include row crops in the alleys between the trees and what he called “farm forestry” — planting other types of plants or produce amid the trees — or growing grass for hay or grazing cattle.
Any of these agro-forestry practices require management. The crops also must be compatible so both benefit, he said.
“You can't just fence and graze cattle,” he said. “You have to be part of the operation.”