Comparative Nutrient Use Efficiency by Candidate Biofuel Crops


07 May 2014

2013 Annual Interpretive Summary

Our understanding of how mineral nutrition affects productivity and composition of bioenergy crops grown on marginal lands remains fragmented and incomplete despite the worldwide interest in using herbaceous biomass as an energy feedstock. Our aim was to determine switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) biomass production and maize (Zea mays L.) grain yield on marginal soils used previously for research to evaluate the effect of soil P and K fertility on alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) forage production.

Grain yield of maize was reduced on P- and/or K-limited plots that also previously impaired alfalfa forage yield, whereas switchgrass biomass yields were high even in plots possessing very low available P (4 mg/kg) and K (< 70 mg/kg) concentrations. Linear-plateau regression models effectively described the relationship of soil test P and K to tissue P and K concentrations, and tissue P and K concentrations accurately predicted removal of P and K in harvest biomass. However, neither soil-test P and K, nor tissue P and K concentrations were effective as diagnostics for predicting switchgrass biomass yield nor could soil tests and their change with cropping predict nutrient removal. Concentrations of cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin and ash were not influenced by P and K nutrition. Predicted bio-ethanol production was closely associated with biomass yield, whereas high biomass K concentrations reduced estimated bio-oil production per ha by as much as 50%. Additional research is needed to identify diagnostics and the types of management to meet the bioenergy production co-objectives of having high yield of biomass with very low mineral nutrient concentrations (especially K) while sustaining and improving the fertility of marginal soils.