Machinery and Equipment Guide

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Machinery and equipment required for switchgrass production will vary depending on the operator’s production system preferences. The following discussion describes basic machinery and equipment needs for producing switchgrass, and it approximates costs incurred from operating machinery used in the production process. Because switchgrass is a perennial crop, note that machinery needs will vary by year as described below.

Machinery and Equipment Needs

When establishing switchgrass, growers may adopt conventional tillage practices or a no-till model. An ideal planting site would have a smooth surface and limited surface residues. Growing switchgrass using conventional tillage practices first involves preparing the site with equipment that can bury most field residues and create a seedbed with primarily bare soil. Blade Energy Crops recommends that the ground surface should be about half bare. Possible tillage equipment includes a moldboard plow, chisel plow or heavy disk. Using a cultipacker can help to form a firm seedbed and ensure the correct planting depth. Planting too deep could result in a thin switchgrass stand becoming established. Depending on field conditions, the seedbed may need multiple passes from a packing device. If considering conventional tillage within an area currently used for pasture or hay production, then apply herbicide before tillage and again before planting.

Producers may no-till switchgrass into pasture, hay fields or crop stubble, but some site preparation may be necessary before planting. In fields with existing pasture or hay cover, begin preparing the planting area in the late summer or fall before planting the following year. First, mow the pasture or hay ground, and wait for the appropriate regrowth to apply herbicide. If the pasture or hay is 12 inches or shorter, then a rotary mower will work, but if the material is taller than 12 inches, then the mowed material should be removed. During the planting year, reapply herbicide four weeks to six weeks before planting, and if weeds persist, consider another application. To plant switchgrass into crop stubble, ensure that the field has little residue. When using a small grain winter cover crop, kill it at least a month before planting switchgrass. If the cover crop reaches maturity, then it may lead to overly dried the soil.

To plant switchgrass seed, producers have several options. Switchgrass seed can move through conventional equipment, and producers don’t need native grass-specific planting equipment. Instead, conventional drills, Brillion seeders or broadcast seeders are planting equipment options available to producers. Broadcast seeding doesn’t work well in planting sites with significant residues. In no-till systems, producers may use a drill for planting switchgrass. Before using no-till planting equipment, calibrate the equipment to the appropriate planting depth. The no-till equipment’s packing wheels should also work correctly. If the initial planting fails to yield the recommended stand density, then producers may need to reseed or overseed during the spring following planting. Adjust planting equipment to the appropriate settings given the percentage of pure seed and the seed germination rate.

Controlling weeds is important when establishing switchgrass. To manage weeds after planting, producers may mow switchgrass stands and apply herbicide. Mowing occurs in the first year. The University of Kentucky recommends mowing when weeds grow to be 18 inches to 24 inches tall; the mowing should occur before the switchgrass flowers and produces seed. Mow the field at a minimum 8- to 10-inch height. As necessary, repeat this mowing process until Sept. 1. Iowa State University suggests mowing stands when the switchgrass grows to a 6- to 10-inch height, and the switchgrass should be mowed to a 4- to 5-inch height. Mowing shouldn’t remove switchgrass seedling leaves, and the mowing height should be above the switchgrass growing point. Herbicide application is typically necessary in the first and second years. If switchgrass follows a herbicide-tolerant annual, then weed pressure may be less significant. To maintain switchgrass fields, producers will also apply fertilizer. If the soil pH level is less than 5.0, then lime application may be necessary.

When harvesting switchgrass, use conventional hay equipment. Recommended stubble height will vary by production system. At heights that are too low, the switchgrass may experience reduced survival, vigor and yield reliability. Additionally, short stubble may increase the risk for puncturing equipment tires. To mow switchgrass at harvest, Blade Energy Crops recommends using a mower-conditioner, not a conventional mower, because it may expedite drying. Producers may also rake cut switchgrass into windrows to help with drying. If the raked windrows would be too large to manage with available equipment, though, then forgoing raking may be preferred. The material should dry to 13 percent to 15 percent moisture before baling. For baling, producers may use a large round baler or a large square baler. Large rectangular bales may increase efficiency of handling, storage, transportation and pre-processing. Although baling switchgrass can make use of commonly available machinery, using that equipment for switchgrass would lead to more machinery repair and maintenance needs.

Equipment and Machinery Needs for Switchgrass Production*

Conventional Production No-Till Production
Tractor X X
Heavy disk X
Cultipacker X
Drill X
No-till drill X
Lime application X X
Fertilizer spreader X X
Sprayer X X
Rotary mower X X
Mower-conditioner X X
Rake X X
Large round baler X X
Moving bales on farm X X
Hauling X X
Owned and Operated Equipment or Custom Hire Services

When considering crop production machinery and equipment needs, producers have the option to used owned equipment or hire a custom service provider. The decision will depend on an operation’s current machinery and equipment inventory, time available for conducting machinery operations and the difference in cost. The following table compares projected costs for the two scenarios per pass per acre. In the first, a grower owns and operates equipment. In the second, a grower hires a custom service provider to carry out equipment-related work. The machinery costs are meant to represent total costs incurred for operating equipment needed in switchgrass production for bioenergy use.

Estimated Machinery Costs and Custom Rates, Per Acre Per Pass

Machinery Cost Custom Rate
Heavy disk $14.60 $15.80
Cultipacker $10.02 $8.40
Drill $12.80 $15.00
No-till drill $16.40 $16.75
Lime application* $9.34
Fertilizer spreader $7.62 $5.34
Sprayer $3.70 $5.98
Rotary mower $15.10 $16.38
Mower-conditioner $20.70 $12.04
Rake $9.50 $5.04
Large round baler** $29.20 $90.00
Moving bales on farm $2.88 $3.18
Hauling^ $13.29 $63.60
* Lime application is communicated as price per ton, not price per pass.
** Costs assumed for full production.
^Hauling rate may vary depending on proximity to ultimate market. This estimate assumes 20 miles.

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Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics. 2012. Machinery Cost Estimates: Summary. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Urbana, IL 61801.

Genera Energy, Inc. 2012. Switchgrass Production Guide. Genera Energy, Inc. Vonore, TN 37885.

Hancock, Dennis W. 2012. The Management and Use of Switchgrass in Georgia. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. Athens, GA 30602.

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Plain, Ronald L. and Joyce White. 2012. 2012 Custom Rates for Farm Services in Missouri. University of Missouri Extension. Columbia, MO 65211.

Rasnake, Monroe, Mike Collins and Ray Smith. 2013. Switchgrass for Bioenergy. University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service, Center for Crop Diversification. Lexington, KY 40546.

Salon, Paul. (n.d.). Establishing Switchgrass for Biomass Production. USDA-NRCS. Syracus, NY 13202-2450.

Smith, S. Ray, Laura Schwer, Tom Keene and Kenton Sena. 2011. Switchgrass for Biomass Production in Kentucky. Cooperative Extension Service and University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. Lexington, KY 40546.

Stiles, Scott and Terry Griffin.n.d. Estimating Farm Machinery Costs. University of Arkansas. Little Rock, AR 72204.

Teel, Alan, Stephen Barnhart and Gerald Miller. 2003. Management Guide for the Production of Switchgrass for Biomass Fuel in Southern Iowa. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Ames, Iowa 50011-2031.