Energy needs and the resulting chase for more corn and soybean acres have already changed the nation's cropping landscape. If current trends continue, more change is coming. What might that mean for Louisiana?

First, here are the 2007 acreage counts for the state:

  • Soybean - 600,000
  • Cotton - 335,000
  • Corn - 730,000
  • Grain sorghum - 250,000
  • Rice - 400,000
  • Sugarcane - 400,000
  • Hay - 250,000
  • Other - 50,000
  • Total - 3,075,000

“We have a bit over 3 million acres to produce crops on,” said Don Boquet at the LSU AgCenter-sponsored AgOutlook 2008 Conference in Monroe, La., in late February. “All of these can be grown to produce biofuel.”

Meeting federal mandates for biofuel production will require some 100 million acres-plus of cropland — 13 million for the biodiesel mandate alone.

“There's a lot of uncertainty,” said Boquet, an LSU AgCenter agronomist based at the Macon Ridge Research Station in Winnsboro, La. “One thing we do know is that future crop selection will be based on economics and not functionality. Farmers will plant what will make the most money and that's why there's a lot of bidding for acres right now.”

Louisiana's traditional crops with potential for biodiesel production are soybeans and cotton.

“I recently heard cotton called an ‘oilseed crop.’ Well, it's not — and neither is soybean. But they do produce significant amounts of oil and can be used for biodiesel. Ethanol crops we grow in the state are corn, grain sorghum, wheat/oats, sugarcane, and sweet potato.”

Soybeans

In a best-case scenario, soybeans will produce 80 gallons of oil per acre. Cotton produces 50 gallons per acre.

Currently, Louisiana soybean production is at 1 million acres. “We had 600,000 in 2007 and should (gain 400,000 acres) if the seed is available. The highest acreage ever was 2 million back in the 1980s. Yields typically run between 25 and 40 bushels per acre.”

However, the potential is much greater.

“You know, 1.5 million acres of soybean could be grown again if prices stay at $15 per bushel. We're getting close to 50 bushels per acre (as a norm). So, our potential is more than 75 million bushels and 112 million gallons of oil.”

Boquet said Louisiana has many advantages when growing soybeans:

  • Experienced farmers.

  • Research-based production practices.

  • Varieties adapted to most soil types.

  • Storage and transportation in place.

  • Moderate production costs per acre ($175) and per bushel relative to returns. “That's especially true, right now.”

  • Needs no nitrogen fertilizer. “That's a big advantage for soybeans and a reason I think this crop will” remain popular.

  • Potential for improved types for yield and oil production. “Breeders will be improving the oil content of soybeans to make them better suited for biofuel production.”

  • High protein meal as co-product. “Having a profitable co-product associated with biofuel production makes it more practical.”

  • Easy long-term storage.

However, there are limitations to soybeans as an energy crop. Among them:

  • Diseases and insects. “In recent years, disease and insects have been particularly bad in soybean. We've done a lot of research to combat this, and in the last five to 10 years, we've largely changed the way soybeans are grown in the state.”

  • Weather deterioration (short harvest interval). “LSU AgCenter personnel are working on this, as well. They're trying to come up with seed that doesn't deteriorate in the field if left for a long time.”

  • Oil extraction plants would need markets for co-products. “This is a real limitation for the industry.”

  • Low production of oil compared with oilseed crops.

Cotton

Boquet never thought he'd talk about cottonseed as a biofuel crop. “Fact is, it has about the same amount of oil as soybeans. But it doesn't produce as much seed per acre.” Presently, Louisiana cotton acreage is down to about 350,000. The highest acreage in the state was 1 million, achieved in the 1980s. Present seed yield is at 1,600 pounds per acre and there's a production potential of 40 gallons of oil per acre.

Cotton's potential is about 1 million acres — “where we've been before. I don't think we'll be back there in the near future. Cotton tends to be planted on better ground and seed yield could be about one ton per acre for about 50 million gallons of biodiesel.”

Advantages for cotton as an energy crop:

  • High value fiber, protein meal and other co-products.

  • Experienced farmers.

  • Research-based production practices.

  • Stalks (5 tons per acre) may also be used for energy production. “In the past, other countries have used cotton stalks for various things — not so much for fuel production, but that could change as cellulosic-based fuels are adopted.”

However, cotton has limitations. First, it's a very high-input/high-management crop and there's competition for its oil.

For example, “dairymen have identified cottonseed as an excellent feed for dairy cattle. That's helped bid up the price of cottonseed to $240-plus per ton.”

Non-traditional crops

There are some non-traditional crops Louisiana could grow. “I'm not saying we will, but they have potential. The reason: the amount of oil they produce.”

Some of those crops, with gallons of oil per acre produced, include:

  • Canola - 170

  • Sunflower - 140

  • Peanuts - 125

  • Chinese tallow - 1,000

  • Jatropha - 220. “This produced quite a lot of oil in tropical areas and doesn't have the (environmental) problems that oil palm has. We could grow this crop in southern Louisiana — although it's subject to frost damage.” In fact, commercial production has begun in Florida, where they are reporting very high yields of oil.

  • Tung oil - 120

  • Oil palm - 700. “The reason this is cheap is a lot can be produced per acre in countries where labor costs are low. The problem with oil palm is the rainforests are being cleared to grow it so environmentalists are very much against it.”

    There are several reasons to consider such crops.

  • To gain net efficiency per acre. “Look at the numbers and you'll find there are crops that can produce two or three times as much oil as soybean. To use lower input crops is another reason, although soybean is already pretty low.”

  • To improve land resources by growing more than one crop annually.

  • To use rotation to improve crop health. “If you don't rotate soybean, after several years the production will begin to go down. With cotton, you can grow it regularly and maintain 80 percent to 85 percent of its potential. But try that with soybean and you'll soon be at 50 percent of potential. You have to rotate it and that's where some of these alternative crops might (play a role).”

Canola/sunflower

Canola is a very interesting, old crop that was produced at least 10,000 years ago. Some still refer to it as rapeseed — which draws on the Latin word for turnip.

In the United States, 90 percent of canola is grown in North Dakota. The crop could be grown in Louisiana where present acreage is zero. Research shows the yield potential in Louisiana is the same as in North Dakota — about 3,000 pounds per acre. The oil production capability is 170 gallons per acre — twice the amount of soybean.

Potentially, said Boquet, “Louisiana could grow 500,000 acres of canola and produce as much as 85 million gallons of oil. To produce that much oil requires about half the acreage soybeans would require.”

Other advantages of canola:

  • High oil content (44 percent) and quality (twice the oil per acre compared to soybean).

  • Thirty-five percent protein meal and valuable co-products.

  • Winter crop that can be double-cropped with soybean or cotton.

  • Very high potential for rapid increases in efficiency and yield. “A breeding program could rapidly improve canola as a Southern crop.”

Canola does have limitations.

  • It requires soils with good surface and internal drainage. “That's one good reason why we won't plant more than 500,000 acres of it.”

  • It is susceptible to root and stem diseases that often relate to soils with excess moisture.

  • It is highly allelopathic. “That means when double-cropping, we'll have to work on that problem.”

  • Meal quality is not as good as soybean.

  • Very small seed. “The seed is so tiny it almost flows like water. That can cause problems at harvest.”

  • Shatters soon after maturing.

Sunflower also has potential in the state. “This is a crop that we've grown some of in the past — primarily as a confectionary crop rather than an oilseed.

“Potentially, we could grow 1 million acres of sunflower. It's already well adapted to various soil types. Its yield is about 2,000 pounds per acre with oil production at 140 gallons per acre.”

Among advantages of sunflower:

  • Competitive yields compared with other states. “I drove through Kansas several years ago and I promise you, the sunflowers grown here looked a lot better than the sunflowers there. I don't know if that was just a bad year for them.”

  • Very high oil content (45 percent to 50 percent) and quality.

  • Adapted to a wide range of soil types.

  • High potential for rapid increase in efficiency and yield. “That's because it's never been bred for here.”

  • All types of bees love sunflowers. “I've never seen so many bees as I saw in sunflowers last year. That might develop into a cottage industry. Canola is also attractive to bees.”

Among the limitations of sunflower:

  • No farmer experience with production.

  • No established cultural practices yet for Louisiana.

  • Low weight per volume (28 pounds per bushel).

  • Insects and diseases. “So far, I haven't seen too many problems, but we don't know enough about pests in sunflower.”

Others

Louisiana's current peanut acreage is small, about 500. The state's potential acreage is 750,000 with a potential yield, according to the University of Georgia, of 3,000 pounds per acre. That would result in an oil yield of 190 gallons per acre — three times that of soybean.

As far as limitations, “peanuts require specialized harvesting equipment. It also has high value as a food crop. Peanut oil is highly valued.”

Boquet also spoke briefly on Chinese tallow. Despite having a bad reputation as an invasive species, Chinese tallow can produce at least 1,000 gallons of oil per acre.

“One thing I've found is although it's invasive it isn't very competitive. On marginal soils, where there isn't as much competition, it can grow pretty well. It has a bad name because of that.

“But the fact that it can do well on marginal soils may be of benefit in biofuel production. Perhaps plantations could be established where nothing else will grow.”

Ethanol: corn and sorghum

Presently, Louisiana crops used for ethanol are corn, grain sorghum, wheat and sugarcane.

Current Louisiana acreage is between 500,000 and 730,000. The record high for acreage was 750,000. The present yield is between 130 and 150 bushels per acre with a current annual production around 120,000,000 bushels. The ethanol yield is 400 gallons per acre.

There are many advantages to growing corn. Among them:

  • It's a known commodity.

  • Research-based production practices.

  • Good infrastructure with widespread storage and transportation in place.

  • Adapted hybrids. “I believe the state set a record of 160 bushels last year. That's very good for the South.”

  • Stores well.

  • Marketable co-products.

  • Potential for increase in efficiency and yield.

  • Large amount of biomass for possible use. “This assumes that boiler fuel or cellulosic conversion processes are developed.”

The potential disadvantages include:

  • Relatively high input and cost of production ($400-plus per acre)

  • Only 30 percent net energy efficiency. “Some people put this number even lower.”

  • Limited markets for DDG (dry distillers grain) in Louisiana.

  • Aflatoxin.

Inputs for grain sorghum are about half that of corn. But it's a wash in the end because production is only half that of corn.

“Right now, there's a lot of talk about grain sorghum because breeders have intentionally made it a shorter plant. There's speculation about ‘reverse breeding’ to get back to the original type that's very tall with a lot of stalk. Grain sorghum may have another life soon.”

The present Louisiana acreage for sorghum is 80,000 to 100,000. The highest acreage ever was 250,000. Present yields are about 4,600 pounds per acre (80 bushels) with an annual production of 24,000,000 bushels.

Sweet sorghum

Sweet sorghum is of great interest to university researchers, energy companies and others. “There are those in Nebraska calling it the ‘sugarcane of the North.’ That's a compliment to sugarcane.

Sweet sorghum is a non-traditional first- and second-generation crop that can be used for ethanol. It has fermentable carbohydrates, but is also a high biomass crop for potential cellulosic ethanol.

“We normally only see it in a jar because it's only been used for syrup in the past. That's quickly changing. At the national sweet sorghum meeting, there were two days devoted to syrup production and two days for ethanol production. They see the value of the crop.”

Potentially, Louisiana could grow a lot of sweet sorghum “because it's adapted to many soil types. We've gotten as much as 40 tons per acre in yield.”

The best thing about it is how easy and inexpensive it is to grow. “The problem you run into is at harvest. How to handle harvest? There's a lot of research into this.

“Right now, there are three methods. You can cut it and take it directly for processing. Other research is considering it as a type of silage — it would be treated and kept bagged in the field. Another group is looking at extracting the juice in the field.”

Bouquet believes a breeding program for sweet sorghum is badly needed “and I think we'll see some start up. All the breeding currently is overseas. They took our sweet sorghum years ago to India. Now, I suppose (the traffic will be in the opposite direction). They seem to have good varieties.”