Switching to switchgrass, exploring native grasses

Evan Duszynski holds a white-footed mouse found in one of the fields.
Evan Duszynski holds a white-footed mouse found in one of the fields.

WILMORE, KY—Through a joint project with Asbury University and the University of Kentucky, several Asbury University students are beginning a multi-year project to learn how a field of switchgrass impacts the small mammal population. This summer, University of Kentucky professor and Asbury alumnus Dr. Ray Smith ’83 is working with Asbury students Evan Duszynski, Kenton Sena, Rhonda Beasley, Joel Noah, and University of Kentucky graduate student Laura Schwer. The team is trapping and tracking small mammals in three fields on Asbury University’s property.

The project, which grew out of a proposal conceived by retired professor Dr. John Brushaber, will transform a 4-5 acre plot of land behind Asbury University’s baseball field from a mix of non-native grasses and invasive plants to a field of switchgrass, a native grass once found in Kentucky. The research team wants to learn if the switchgrass plot has a positive, negative or neutral impact on the small mammal population. The two fields on either side of the switchgrass plot with serve as control fields. Asbury University is assisting with the project by providing the land for study and its physical plant to provide periodic mowing.

Dr. Ray Smith and Evan Duszynski
Dr. Ray Smith and Evan Duszynski

Switchgrass and related native grasses, once found throughout North America before European settlement, were largely plowed to grow corn, tobacco and forage grasses such as fescue and bluegrass throughout Kentucky. The fields at Asbury University’s property have not been in use as farm fields for many years. The land has since become a multi-culture of native and non-native plants such as Japanese honeysuckle and poison hemlock, which are not naturally found in Kentucky and are harmful to the ecosystem, according to Smith.

The Asbury University/University of Kentucky team is documenting the small mammal species diversity, density, sex, weight and age of the species currently found on the three fields. They are trapping and releasing small mammals, and using track tubes to “foot-print” the different species. Track tubes are open-ended plastic tubes with ink pads at both ends and paper in the middle. As the animals enter the tubes to retrieve food, they leave their tracks, which are then used to identify the species. Evan Duszynski is using this study as his summer research project under the direction of Asbury University’s newest professor, Dr. Ben Brammell and Dr. Smith. According to Duszynski, studies have been conducted on switchgrass with songbirds and migratory birds, but not small mammals. Small mammals such as mice are at the bottom of the food chain and are clear indicators of health of the ecosystem. Thus far, the collaborative team has caught prairie voles, meadow voles and white-footed mice.

Track tube used to document the mammal species.
Track tube used to document the mammal species.

After the switchgrass is planted next year, another group of Asbury students will repeat Duszynski’s tests and document the change, if any, that the switchgrass creates for the small mammals. According to UK graduate student Laura Schwer, in addition to a wildlife habitat, switchgrass has many beneficial uses including forage for cattle, erosion control, decreasing pollution around streams, and more recently as biomass, which is a clean energy fuel.

Using switchgrass as a biomass is a familiar idea for Dr. Smith whose research team recently completed a biomass study funded by the Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund. They planted 100 acres of switchgrass, which were divided into 5-acre plots and distributed among 20 farms in 12 different Kentucky counties. The farms were distributed within a 60-mile radius of the Spurlock Power Station in Maysville, Ky., the largest plant owned by East Kentucky Power Cooperative. The goal of this project was to teach farmers how to grow switchgrass with the idea that it could be sold for use as fuel. Unlike coal, switchgrass is a carbon neutral form of power, which means that when burned it emits the same amount of carbon that it takes out of the atmosphere.

Footprints of mammals captured through the track tube.
Footprints of mammals captured through the track tube.

According to Dr. Smith, while switchgrass will not replace coal as a fuel source for energy, it can be used as an important supplement to reduce the amount of coal burned and meet the ever-growing demand to produce more clean energy options. It could also become a viable cash crop for farmers who  sell their switchgrass to local power plants or to individuals seeking to heat their homes in a more carbon neutral way.

While the switchgrass project at Asbury University has the potential for many uses, Dr. Smith said that the most important aspect of this project is that Asbury students gain valuable research experience and skills, which prepare them for advanced study and the workforce. In the last five years, 10 students have worked alongside Dr. Smith to complete their senior research projects.

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