"We've been doing calculations on what it would cost to produce
energy crops in Illinois and other states for quite some time,
and we realized that it could be useful to people who want to be
able to calculate what these costs would be on their own farm,"
Khanna said. "We wanted to create a calculator so farmers would
be able to make their own assessment."
The feedstock cost and profitability calculator is available
"It's an information dissemination tool," Khanna said. "The
calculator allows farmers to put in their own parameters. They
can customize the costs based on what their current farming
operation looks like, what their current returns are on the land
that they are thinking about converting, and learn what it would
cost to grow an energy crop on it instead. They can decide at
what price it might be feasible for them to produce an energy
crop. What is the minimum price they would need in order to make
After selecting a baseline crop that they are currently
farming, users provide specific information about their
expenses, yields and inputs.
"Unlike corn and soybeans, where we've had years of
experience and people have developed recommended, standardized
application rates and planting techniques, these bioenergy crops
are still very experimental," Khanna said. "We're still figuring
out what the optimum rate of nitrogen application should be, the
timing for harvest and so on. This is based on a representative
set of assumptions using our best knowledge to date."
Khanna recommends that before using the calculator, farmers
gather some key information about their current operating
expenditures. For example, one line item on the calculator
requires the discount rate.
"If farmers are thinking of growing energy crops purely as an
investment decision, then they would be interested in getting
the same return from their investment in an energy crop over
time as they would get if they were to put this money in the
bank. That's the discount rate they should use when discounting
future returns to compare them to the upfront investment that
would be needed to establish an energy crop," Khanna said. "If
the bank is going to give them 4 percent, then they should at
least get a 4 percent return on growing an energy crop instead."
Khanna said that although the calculator has been internally
tested, it hasn't been tested by real users. She would welcome
feedback from farmers about the calculator. Are there aspects of
the calculator that need more explanation? What problems arise?
Is the calculator easy to use?
Khanna hopes to use feedback to create a list of frequently
asked questions. "There is a clickable link on the website to
submit questions. We hope to get input from users so that we can
update the information as it becomes available," she said.
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Although Khanna has data for all rain-fed states in the United
States, this first version of the online calculator includes data
for only Illinois, Michigan and Oklahoma. "We presented these three
states as illustrative," Khanna said. "We looked at poplar,
Miscanthus, switchgrass, prairie grass and stover. They behave
differently in different parts of the country, so this initial
calculator shows the contrast between three very different climate
and rainfall regions."
The calculator includes costs for converting both currently
cropped land and marginal land.
"Land cost is a significant part of the cost of producing energy
crops," Khanna said. "One reason for looking at marginal or less
productive cropland is to show that the cost of producing these
energy crops is expected to be significantly lower on land that is
less productive for growing row crops but could be used productively
to grow energy crops.
"If you have land that's currently not being put to any economic
use, then you might be able to get high yields from energy crops.
Miscanthus doesn't seem to require very high-quality crop land to
begin with, although that is still being studied through field
experiments. It's not affected adversely by low soil quality and
nutrient values. So, in southern Illinois, for example, corn yields
may be low compared with central Illinois, but Miscanthus could be
more productive," Khanna said.
For more information, an in-depth explanation of how the
categories and calculations were developed is available on the
farmdoc website at
The production of the biomass feedstocks calculator was funded by
a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant. If there is
enough interest, Khanna said her team will attempt to add to the
interface and create a drop-down menu that can be used by farmers in
The calculator was based on the article "The breakeven costs of
alternative feedstocks for cellulosic biofuels," which was published
in Aspects of Applied Biology. Haixiao Huang was a co-author.
[Text from file received from
the University of Illinois
College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences]