Blog Post – March 2013

This is the inaugural issue of what will be a monthly update of activity in the world of Miscanthus New Zealand Limited. Our first two and a half years have been very busy as we move from having 34 plants that we imported in tissue culture, to supplying several hundred thousand plants to landowners who were keen to grow Miscanthus.

Along the way, we have learnt a lot about what works well and where problems are likely to arise. Our systems have improved so that problems and risks are minimised and we have been very pleased with the initial growth rates achieved, particularly those in Hawke’s Bay where we thought that the fry climate might mean that there would be difficulty getting Miscanthus established successfully.

Initial sampling in Hawkes Bay indicated that actual production at the end of the second growing season was in the order of more than twice what we had been assuming and this augured well for the overall economics and for growing Miscanthus on a commercial scale.

The number of sites on which we have Miscanthus growing has been expanding and we are now looking for new sites in Northland where there is rapidly firming demand for Miscanthus biomass product, sufficient for us to need to get 7000 or more hectares planted. The challenge will be being able to identify sufficient suitable land and to get the landowners sufficiently interested to make the initial establishment investment to enable this particular project to be a success.

At the same time, there is considerable interest from around Lake Taupo, because the Lake Taupo Protection Trust recognises Miscanthus as being a crop that significantly reduces nitrogen run-off into the lake. In that situation, our challenge is to get end users of appropriate scale in the vicinity of Taupo to become sufficiently interested that they will offer long term contracts for purchase of the Miscanthus product.

Interest has also recently come from Southland with the thinking being to use Miscanthus as shelter crop to protect pasture from the cold southerly winds that dairy farmers have realised significantly reduce pasture growth. This is a different issue from the use of Miscanthus for shelter in Canterbury and the whole structure of how this is managed will be different. But with Southland having such reliable rainfall and during the growing season having much longer day length than regions further north, it is very likely that Miscanthus will thrive in that environment even though the growing season is shorter.

These are just three examples of what we are working on at present. So the opportunities are out there. Now it is simply a matter of Miscanthus New Zealand Limited spending the time working with people to develop these possibilities to the point where they begin to function independently with the initial planting of Miscanthus acting as an advertisement that attract further planting.

Peter Brown

Project Update February 2013

February Update

This month has seen a continuation of last month’s dry and hot weather causing very dry conditions. This is being reflected in the occurrence of two severe bush fires near two of the farms where Miscanthus giganteus (MxG) has been planted. Fortunately at Aylesbury farm where all MxG plantings are irrigated this hot weather has produced ideal growing conditions.

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MxG is a warm season perennial grass that is a useful cellulosic bio energy crop due to its high yield potential. It is a C4 grass, as is maize , which means it is a very efficient user of water and grows better in warmer conditions. This has enabled it to survive at Karetu farm in the absence of irrigation and where the soil is poor. Lack of water at Karetu has started to cause visible stress in some of the weaker plants but this will become less of an issue as the plants develop and send down their deep tap root.

Reseach indicates that Miscanthus has a very low nutrient removal rate compared to other potential bioenergy crops. The plant reportably has a remarkable ability to turn only modest amounts of nutrients into large amounts of biomass. Testing of this during this research will include monitoring soil nutrient levels and MxG dry matter yields over the next three years. Of interest is that some MxG plantings, those on Karetu farm, will receive no additional nutrients and additional water supply whereas plants on Aylesbury farm will, due to being planted within the milking platform, receive nutrients supplied to the pasture. This is not deliberate but will be due to some fertiliser spread on the pasture reaching the MxG plots.

One of the potential benefits of MxG on dairy farms is that it is multi-functional. As well as generating ecosystem services through its role of providing shelter, which are being measured as part of this research, it can be used to produce silage, if cut early, or material similar to straw when harvested when mature. Nutrient analysis of plant material is at present being undertaken by Miscanthus New Zealand. The plant is certainly palatable as inadvertently tested when cows broke through fencing on Aylesbury farm when power to the fence was lost! A back- up system is now available to reduce the risk of this. Research indicates that regrowth from grazing is rapid providing the growing point is not damaged through trampling. This was certainly the case in this instance as the following pictures illustrate.


Fig 1 Heavy grazing of MxG plants removed above ground vegetation

Progress to date


Fig 2 Plants had a well developed root system facilitating rapid regrowth

Monitoring of soil moisture levels, water input and pasture production is now well underway. This has been possible due to the excellent co-operation and assistance from Samuel Dennis and his team at Agresearch. C-dax pasture meter readings are being used to monitor pasture growth. At present the aim is to monitor the control areas and eventual sheltered areas to try and ensure these areas are as similar as possible before the shelter effect develops next season. Whole pasture records are also recorded to provide furher information for this research and for Agresearch’s work on yield analysis.

Pot trials are now mature enough to enable testing of equipment to monitor expected shelter effects on plant transpiration and photosynthesis rates. Steven Stillwell and I will be testing equipment over the coming weeks.

Monitoring of bumble bee motels placed in six MxG paddocks has revealed that out of 48 motels placed with 4 compartments in each motel only one compartment showed any sign of occupancy. This is in line with expectations due to motels being placed towards the end of the bee nesting season and also bumble bees tend to crawl through patches of long grass when searching for nesting places. These are in short supply on intensive dairy farms and is one reason why plantings of MxG may lead to a higher occupancy rate of these motels in the future.


Fig 3 MxG two weeks after grazing

Project Update January 2013

January Update

There are now three dairy farms planted with Miscanthus giganteus (MxG) with a total of 10 paddocks being used to firstly investigate the growth potential of the plant itself and also to monitor its effectiveness in providing ecosystem services to dairy farms. There may also be potential to plant further paddocks next season.

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Planting has now been completed on all farms with mixed success. MxG plants on Aylesbury Farm needed a lot of emergency watering to keep them alive. Ground conditions were dry at planting with soil moisture falling to 9% and no significant rain has fallen since the 28 mm downpour on Friday 7th December. Fortunately K-Lines were put in place and the MxG areas were irrigated with 24 to 40 mm of water. The Center Pivot came on line just before Christmas and we now have a very good set up for trials work.The plants are now responding well to the increased water availability.

Planting at Karetu has also been very successful. There was more moisture in the soil at planting time, 15%, and on Friday 7th, two days after planting, there was 35 mm of rain fall.

The area of planting is beyond the edge of the Centre Pivot and soil moisture level will now have fallen to 8% as illustrated by grass in front of the MxG dying off.

The MxG however is still green and average height at one month of age, 16 cm, is higher than the 12 cm for plants on Aylesbury Farm at a similar age.


MxG plant in paddock 13 Aylesbury Farm now growing well under irrigation.


Karetu Farm. Edge of pivot irrigation at the back of paddock 15. MxG planted along top left fence line.

The soil here is also very poor and Poplar trees that the MxG replaced struggled to grow. This shows the MxG’s robustness especially if it eventually yields well in such a harsh location.


Karetu Farm. MxG plant growing at the back of paddock 15.


MxG planted in very stony soil on Karetu farm.

Final plantings of four paddocks, three into already dry soil, have suffered due to no rain post planting and very high temperatures. There may have also been some residual chemical present as Gorse in this area was sprayed six days prior to planting. Some plants are still green but the majority have died back except for the one paddock that receives water from the Centre Pivot. Over time the plants may recover or alternatively the area will be re-planted early next year.

t appears that MXG is very robust providing intial soil moisture levels are high enough to allow it to establish itself in the very early stages. If it dries out initialy as on Aylesbury farm it is difficult to sustain. However once established it copes well with harsh conditions as on Karetu farm. On irrigated dairy farms in Canterbury planting well into January is suitable but for unirrigated areas successful planting beyond November becomes very weather dependent.

Future Work

Measurements in the immediate future will be concentrating on grass production in the area influenced by the MXG plantings and also a similar control area in the same paddock not influenced by the MxG.

It ls hoped that over the time of this research protection of grass and clover plants by the MxG shelter will be reflected in improved grass growth and water use effeciency. Water appliction rate and soil moisture levels will also be monitored in the same areas.The Bumble bee motels placed in six paddocks will be checked for occupancy later in the summer. As the MxG matures we may find occupancy rate of motels within the MxG shelter increases over the next two years.

Winter work will involve setting up weather recording equipment, analysing collected data, soil sampling including obtaining a base value for earthworm populations and reviewing existing research. We will look at whether we need to install lysimeters to fully understand how the MxG is affecting water use efficiency and will look at whether we can set up a system of using eddy covariance to monitor gas emisions from sheltered paddocks.

Next summer the detailed effects of MxG on the micro climate of the sheltered area of paddocks will be monitored in detail together with measurements of the shelter effect on photosynthesis and transpiration. To ensure equipment being used is able to record the data required plot trials are being set up this summer on the Lincoln University Nursery Unit to test these in controlled conditions.


Finally many thanks again to my three farmers Mark Williams, Marvin Pangborn and Dave Irvine for letting me continue to use their farms for this research and for the help I have received and to Agresearch for letting me use their C-dax pasture meter which I am now in a position to utilise.

Project Update December 2012

December Update

Planting of Miscanthus giganteus (MxG) in the first four paddocks took place on the 13th and 14th of November at Aylesbury Road farm. The existing grass was first sprayed with Roundup and then left for two weeks before being cultivated the day before planting.Thank you Mark for organising this and to those who carried out the work. Also thanks to all my farms for giving me the chance to test the potential of what hopefully will prove to be a very interesting plant.

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Plants have now been in the ground for three weeks and are beginning to strengthen and produce vibrant shoots. Those plants that have developed the most are already illustrating the impressive growth rate that, if they grow to their potential, will enable them to reach a height of 3 metres next year and four metres in subsequent years.



Planting has not however been without its problems. Firstly the machine planter we used did not plant the MxG plant plugs deep enough. Immediately after planting there was a good downpour of rain and subsequent inspection of the MxG plants showed many of the plugs had become too exposed. Most plants were subsequently planted deeper which was important as the surface soil dried very quickly but moisture remained at a depth of 10cm plus.



The weather has been very dry since planting with only one significant rainfall event two weeks after the initial rain following planting. Most days have also had persistent drying winds which incidentally the MxG shelterbelt will hopefully eventually protect the pasture plants from. Providing sufficient water has been a problem but to date survival rate is good, 80 – 90 % in most paddocks. The plants that are starting to get away do have a robust look about them. Once plants get their root network established the plants should be fairly resilient.

Planting has also started on Karetu farm and should be completed tomorrow.Thank you Marv for organising the contractors to get the areas cultivated. Conditions here are harsher than at Aylesbury Road. One paddock should receive some water from the irrigator but the other paddock is part of the dry block. All plants have been hand planted to ensure they are placed at sufficient depth. This is feasible due to the relatively small area being planted. Also all plants were well watered for several days prior to planting. Some plants can be drip irrigated but initially they will be left to see how they cope with the conditions unaided. However if the dry weather continues for some time some means of watering the plants may be needed.

The last four paddocks to be planted will be sprayed this week and cultivated and planted next week. This will be on one of Dave Irvine’s farms. I am very grateful to Dave for taking the time out of his very busy shedule to show me round the farm. Firstly because his operational manager was away at the time and so he did not have any free time and secondly because I needed a second visit to re-orientate myself as to where we had been the first time.

By the time of my next report I will know how well all plantings have established themselves and work can then begin on starting to monitor the ecosystem service benefits generated by Miscanthus plantings.

The plants that have already established themselves are growing well at present.

Project Update November 2012

November Update

My research proposal has been approved subject to two adjustments. One of these was to narrow the scope of the research, as it was felt that too broad an area was being considered and the other was that I needed more paddocks planted with Miscanthus to provide a robust trial that would give statistically valid data.

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To address the points raised we have decided initially to concentrate on the eco-system service benefits generated from creating Miscanthus shelterbelts. I am in discussion with Pete Morrison and David Irvine about planting Miscanthus on their farms and I should hopefully have ten paddocks from which I can collect data. Areas to be researched are production and water use effeciency from shelterbelts; the effects of shelter on earthworm abundance, mineralisation rates and selected bio-diversity indicators; and the growth characteristics of Miscanthus including its carbon sequestation rate, feed value and yield potential.

I will also be planting quadrats of clover in some of the Misacanthus paddocks next year to assess whether clover persistency and pollination rate is improved in the presence of shelter.

Progress to date

Ground preparation has started on Aylesbury Road farm and Karetu farm. Miscanthus plants have been ordered for delivery on November 14th and a machine planter has been sourced for planting. Karetu is to be planted at the end of November.

Paddocks on Rivergold Dairies Farm, owned by David Irvine, will be looked at this week for suitable planting locations for Miscanthus.

Forty eight bumble bee motels have been placed on Karetu and Aylesbury Road farms. In each Miscanthus paddock eight motels have been placed, four in the unsheltered control area and four in the location of the Miscanthus plantings. Occupancy rate is not expected to be very high this year but over the next three years occupancy rate should indicate whether there is a preference for motels placed in the Miscanthus shelterbelts.The motels are being used to assess the role of Miscanthus in improving biodiversity on dairy farms and also as part of the research into pollination of clover plants.

Monitoring equipment at present is being sourced so that I can measure the effects of shelter on the microclimate in the paddock. Daily readings over the summer months will give detailed information on changes occurring in one paddock on Aylesbury Road farm. This plus the remote sensing of the soil water profile already in place on the farm will be useful data in determining the effects of shelter on pasture growth and water use efficiency.