Reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea L.) is a perennial grass which is naturally distributed throughout Europe and in temperate regions of North America and Asia. The grass is tall and leafy and in natural conditions is most commonly found growing along water margins. Reed canary grass (RCG) grows rapidly under Northern European conditions and has long been recognized as a crop with a high biomass potential. Interest in RCG as an energy crop began in Sweden in 1981 and it has since been evaluated throughout Europe. For a species to be considered as an energy crop it requires high yield potential and high dry matter content at harvest. Additionally, it should require little cultivation, few nutrients or crop protection chemicals and the biomass should have a low concentration of minerals to make it suitable for combustion.
Reed canary grass has not been grown as a crop in Ireland. However, research work in the UK has shown that the crop can be grown throughout England and Scotland. This work has shown that RCG does well in more northerly latitudes although it does not appear to have quite the yield potential of other energy crops. Research in Ireland is ongoing at the Teagasc centre in Oak Park.
GROWTH Reed canary grass can be grown from seed, once mature it reaches a height of 150-300 cms. It spreads underground by rhizomes approximately 1 cm thick, it can root to as deep as 3m. New shoots are produced from the underground rhizomes in early spring, typically in February or March. Flowers are produced in early summer after which the crop matures. The crop can be expected to remain productive for up to 8 years after which its productivity declines.
WHERE IT CAN BE GROWN Reed canary grass grows well on most types of soils, it is one of the best grass species for poorer soils and is very tolerant to flooding. It thrives particularly on wet humus rich soils where it gives the highest yields and best quality of biomass, heavy clay soils are less suitable for establishment and early growth. It is more drought resistant than many other grass species even though it grows naturally in wet places. Optimum pH is 6-7.
SOWING Seedling establishment is the most critical stage in the maintenance of a good RCG stand. Best stands are obtained when seed is sown not deeper than 1-2 cms into a well prepared, firm seedbed. Rolling before and after sowing is highly recommended. Seed is typically sown in rows 12.5 cms apart, recommended seeding rate is 15-20 kg ha-1. Best time to sow is May.
MARKETS At present, the production of electricity and heat are the largest potential markets for reed canary grass. The government has set a target that 30% of peat burned in the three peat fired power stations will be replaced by biomass by 2015. This will require growing approximately 80,000ha of energy crops which could include reed canary grass. The crop can be burned to produce heat or electricity, its combustion characteristics are similar to Miscanthus although ash content can be higher. Other potential uses include chemical processing into pulp and as a feedstock for liquid biofuel production should that technology be successfully developed.
Reed canary grass is an energy crop which offers alternatives to other energy crops such as Miscanthus and willow. Biomass yields on mineral soils are unlikely to be as high as other energy crops and unit production costs will be higher. However, reed canary grass is easy to establish compared to other energy crops and grows well on poor, wet soils on which other crops will struggle. Additionally, its earlier harvesting interval facilitates a greater year around spread in biomass supply. Consequently, it occupies its own niche and should offer growers an alternative on poorer soils. Reed canary grass has not been grown commercially in Ireland although it has been grown successfully throughout the UK and North West Europe.
Reed canary grass is easier to establish than other other energy crops although good seedbed preparation and timely weed control is still necessary during the establishment phase. The crop will take 2-3 years to reach full yield potential which can be expected to be 5-7 tonnes of dry matter per hectare. Reed canary grass can remain productive for up to 8 years after establishment. Insect pests and lodging can be problematical affecting biomass yield in some cases. Harvesting can be carried out with conventional grass harvesting equipment.
Supplying biomass to the peat burning power stations is the largest potential market for reed canary grass at present. Pellets for heat production can also be produced from reed canary grass.