Focusing on one attribute comes at a high price.

At the GLBRC, sustainability researchers are exploring complex issues in agricultural and industrial systems. Research focuses on understanding the attributes and mechanisms responsible for the environmental sustainability of biofuel production systems, such as environmental impacts — many of which may be positive — and socioeconomic factors including incentives and policy options

Learn about the Center's research approach

Sustainability Leadership

Sustainability Leader

A crop and soil scientist and ecosystem ecologist, Robertson focuses much of his research on the role that agriculture plays in greenhouse gas dynamics, and he is internationally known for his expertise in this area. Robertson has been the director...

Sustainability Co-Leader

Jackson’s program focuses on structure and function of managed, semi-natural and natural grassland ecosystems. Research in Jackson’s grassland ecology lab spans many levels of ecological organization, from grass identification at the DNA level to landscape diversity effects on alternative biofuels...

Project Overview

GLBRC Sustainability research ranges from the microbial community level to regional modeling, and researchers conduct fieldwork at different project sites to reflect this diversity of scale. Small plots at Kellogg Biological Station in Michigan and the Arlington Agricultural Research Station in Wisconsin provide locations for measurement-intensive experiments, while investigators work in larger scale-up fields to collect data on carbon balances and biogeochemical processes. Finally, researchers pursue ecosystem-level biodiversity questions across landscapes, including marginal lands, in central Michigan and Wisconsin.

Specific sustainability projects include:

  • Novel biofuel production systems
  • Microbial-plant interactions for improved biofuel production
  • Biogeochemical responses
  • Biodiversity responses
  • Economic responses
  • Modeling, design and testing of drop-in fuels
  • Process synthesis and technoeconomic evaluation for biomass-to-fuels technologies.


Sustainability Publications

N rate and harvest timing effects on switchgrass biomass yield, combustion quality, and energy yield

Bray Hoagland; Matthew D. Ruark; Mark J. Renz; Randall D. Jackson

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Profitability of cellulosic biomass production in the northern Great Lakes Region

Bradley J. Kells; Scott M. Swinton

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Producing bioenergy feedstocks on non-crop land can largely avoid the food price feedbacks of energy biomass production on cropland. The U.S. northern tier grassland-to-forest ecotone offers large areas of marginal land that is not currently cropped. In this ecological transition zone, the relative profitability of grassy vs. woody sources of energy biomass is little studied. This paper reports an exploratory investment analysis of cellulosic biomass production in the northern Great Lakes region. It compares two short-rotation tree crops, willow (Salix sachalinensis F. Schmidt)and hybrid poplar (Populus nigra L. X P. maximowiczii A. Henry), and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) (a native prairie grass) to conventional mixed hay. Because biomass markets are not yet well developed, this study calculates threshold prices and yields at which biomass crops become at least as profitable as mixed grass hay. At 2010–2012 prices and available production technologies, none of the cellulosic crops is competitive with the hay baseline system. The breakeven price of energy biomass ranges from $90–100 per oven-dry Mg–1 for all three energy crops. Breakeven yields are much more variable, due to the high cost of harvesting woody biomass. At 2010–2012 prices, necessary biomass yield increases range from 3.5-fold for switchgrass and willow to over 25-fold for poplar. While the ratio of input costs to revenue remains relatively constant between the northern and southern Great Lakes regions, the opportunity cost of active cropland in the southern zone is much higher, implying an economic comparative advantage for marginal land of the northern tier of the Great Lakes region.

The contribution of future agricultural trends in the US Midwest to global climate change mitigation

A. M. Thomson; G. P. Kyle; X. Zhang; V. Bandaru; T. O. West; M. A. Wise; R. C. Izaurralde; K. V. Calvin

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Agricultural management of switchgrass for fuel quality and thermal energy yield on highly erodible land in the driftless area of southwest wisconsin

Kolby C. Hoagland; Matthew D. Ruark; Mark J. Renz; Randall D. Jackson

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Converting row crop production to a perennial grass crop on highly erodible land has numerous benefits. Switchgrass, grown as a biofuel crop, can provide soil conservation benefits as a perennial crop and also provide economic value to the grower. However, little information exists regarding switchgrass management and production on these lands. The objectives of this study were to determine the effect of two management practices, nitrogen (N) fertilizer rate (0, 56, 112, 168, and 224 kg ha−1) and harvest timing (mid-fall, late-fall, and spring), on: (1) dry matter (DM) yield, (2) switchgrass quality components (moisture, ash, and chloride (Cl−) concentrations), and (3) combustion energy content and yield. The study was conducted in 2009 and 2010 on highly erodible lands in the Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin. Results showed a positive response of switchgrass DM to N fertilizer, with no yield gain above 112 kg ha−1 of N, although application of N increased Cl− concentrations. Harvest timing also affected switchgrass yield, with decreases in yield observed with progressively later harvest timings; this yield decrease was slightly greater compared with previous studies. Progressively later harvest timings led to a decrease in moisture, ash concentration, and Cl− concentration in both years. Energy content of switchgrass was not significantly affected by management. Energy yields, similar to DM yields, were maximized with 112 kg ha−1 of N with a mid-fall harvest. The similarities between this study and other research indicate there is a universal response of switchgrass to N in the northern USA and yields determined in this study indicate that highly erodible lands in the Driftless Area can be used to produce switchgrass at regionally expected yields.