Miscanthus and the Water Cycle

March 6, 2020 11:47 AM
Blog Post

research plots, field and blue sky.
Miscanthus research plots at Iowa State University's Sorenson Farm. Mature miscanthus is able to tolerate a flood better than corn and soy. Picture credit: Heaton Lab

The hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico is a huge environmental issue, luckily there may be a solution to help reduce it. Vegetative and hydrologic modeling show that perennial grasses like miscanthus and switchgrass are better for water quality compared to annual crops[1].

Field trials at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign concluded that miscanthus and switchgrass are more water-intensive than corn and soybeans[2]. Along with using more water, perennials tend to have a longer growing season and provide more ground cover than annual crops. Based on this knowledge and modeling, it is assumed perennials could reduce nitrate levels in water, create less runoff, and reduce spring flooding in wetter climates compared to annuals systems.

A drainage pipe for a miscathus plot.
Drainage pump for miscanthus plot at Iowa State UNiversity's Kitchen Farm. Picture credit: Heaton Lab 

Iowa State University is currently conducting research to better understand how different cropping systems can alter the water cycle. Individual drainage has been set up under plots of miscanthus, biomass sorghum, corn, and soybeans with the goal of quantifying how much water and nitrate is flowing through each system.

Perennial crops offer many environmental benefits, and it appears that improving water quality could be added to the list. Be on the lookout for future blogs regarding miscanthus and an update on Iowa State’s findings regarding perennials and water quality! Also, be sure to check out ISUBiomass on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for more information regarding miscanthus.

Product of ISUBiomass Undergrad Team


[1]  Vanloocke, Andy, Tracy E. Twine, Christopher J. Kucharik, and Carl J. Bernacchi. "Assessing the Potential to Decrease the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic Zone with Midwest US Perennial Cellulosic Feedstock Production." GCB Bioenergy9, no. 5 (2016): 858-75. doi:10.1111/gcbb.12385.

[2] "The Pros and Cons of Miscanthus --uses More Water, Leaches Less Nitrogen." Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics. September 9, 2010. Accessed December 17, 2018. https://ace.illinois.edu/news/pros-and-cons-miscanthus-uses-more-water-l....


Emily Heaton Associate Professor of Agronomy

Agricultural landscapes face increasing pressure to provide the four F's: food, feed, fiber and fuel, while simultaneously maintaining the ecosystem functions that support life as we know it. Done prudently, dedicated biomass crops can provide feedstock for bioenergy and bioproducts while also en...