"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 at
"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 it worthwhile?"
After selecting a baseline crop that they are currently farming,
users provide specific information about their expenses, yields and
"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]