A unique new processing plant in York, Neb., turns crop residue into cash for farmers and pellets for cattle feeders. Some ag insiders say it may just revolutionize the industry.
By Marilyn Cummins | Photos By Jamie Cole
Last fall, as soon as combines left the corn fields surrounding York, Neb., a veritable army of tractors pulling flail shredders and large square balers moved in for a highly coordinated second harvest. The race was on to get excess crop residue—corn stover—shredded, put in windrows, baled and stacked for transport to a unique new processing plant, all in time to beat the region’s typical late-autumn rains and get farmers back in the field for tillage.
The destination of these 145,000 bales of stover was the new, first-of-its-kind $30 million Pellet Technology USA plant in York. There, the stover is tracked, cleaned, tested and processed into three lines of unique pelleted cattle feeds. The company also has a larger vision of its role—converting an underutilized resource into a benefit for growers and livestock producers, as well as for the environment.
“We want to make sure that everything is a win for the farmer,” says Joe Luna, manager of business strategy for PTUSA. “They have less residue to hassle with; they have an additional income stream; they have less management and labor. Then we have a product that is uniform and provides a sustainable, traceable and performance value for livestock feeders.”
Instead of building a cellulosic ethanol biorefinery to use the stover, PTUSA shortens the path by putting it into nature’s cellulosic biorefineries—cattle. And because pellets are as easy to transport as grain, Luna says, “If there is a drought in California, we pick up the forage from here and send it to farmers there on a train.”
Using corn stover for cattle feed is not new. Until now, however, it meant turning out cattle to forage on corn stubble or harvesting the stover to be chopped, ground and mixed with an alkali treatment such as quick lime to improve digestibility, not knowing precisely what nutrients were delivered to the animal.
“By us being able to utilize corn stover as a base for our pellets,” Luna continues, “we’re able to provide more consistent nutrients, more consistent performance and a better value option for feeders.”
The high quality, consistency and traceability that PTUSA seeks to achieve starts in the field, Luna says. “We have a very strict sustainability program that we vet farmers through to make sure their fields are right for our program, and that we’re doing what’s right for the environment and the soil,” he explains. Once the fields are selected and the farmers harvest their corn for grain, the crop residue left on the field must be quickly shredded, put in windrows to dry and baled to strict specifications in terms of required density, as well as ash and moisture content.
Such tight quality controls, along with the short harvest window, led PTUSA to seek out third parties with the expertise to manage the process of getting the stover from fields to the pellet plant. One such partner is AGCO, which, through its Strategic Segment Solutions group, oversees and implements the feedstock harvest program. In addition to providing equipment, such as tractors, shredders, balers and stackers, AGCO manages the logistics of the 12 harvesting teams. Through one of its dealerships, Butler Ag Equipment, the company also provides service to those machines.
AGCO has been providing equipment and support for biomass projects in the United States since 2008, including for cellulosic ethanol plants in Iowa and Kansas, and for the past 18 years in Europe, where they package biomass for use in power plants, according to Ken Wagenbach, biomass equipment specialist with AGCO.
For the PTUSA harvest operation, Wagenbach says, AGCO’s role expanded greatly beyond supplying and maintaining equipment. “We manage the whole process once the fields are turned over to us. We do everything to make sure the corn stover gets shredded, baled, stacked and then delivered to the plant.”
With teams harvesting across hundreds of fields within a 50-mile radius of the PTUSA plant, precise logistics are a must. Last fall, in a temporary office in York, AGCO Strategic Segment Solutions experts directed and monitored every aspect of the field operations for PTUSA. On computer monitors powered by AGCO’s AgCommand® telematics system, fields changed color based on their harvest status, and icons represented the location, status and activity of every piece of equipment.
The operation’s data was being used in multiple ways, Wagenbach says. One was logistics, being sure the right equipment was in the right field at the right time. Another was monitoring the performance of each tractor and implement via a virtual dashboard. The team also monitored the efficiencies of the overall operation, and they used the data to verify and record bale weights and counts, as well as the dates and times of their harvest, all to help meet production and quality goals.
“What AGCO does,” says Glenn Farris, director of AGCO Strategic Segment Solutions, “is provide a lot of the glue that holds all of the things together. We’ve learned to bring a type of industrial efficiency to on-site service and attention.” At the same time, the AGCO team members use their agronomic expertise to be sure the needs of the farmers are met as well.
As corn yields continue to increase, and the plant-health benefits of gene stacks and fungicides lead to more robust stalks and leaves, the resulting tons of crop residue can be a burden and expense for corn growers if too much is left on the field. “We work with the farmers to determine the right amount of biomass to harvest to make sure there’s an adequate amount of stover left to actually improve next year’s crop,” PTUSA’s Luna says.
“We take their excess ag residue, and we turn it from a cost center into a profit center for farmers. We can sustainably harvest it for them and pay them a fee to help increase their bottom line. Then we add nutritional value and densify the stover to benefit livestock producers as well.”
Farris says that what PTUSA is doing is, in many ways, unprecedented. “Their concept is one that could really help revolutionize the feed industry. It’s a major undertaking.”
Farris says AGCO is excited about providing a residue management solution that helps both farmers and PTUSA, as well as other producers and users of biomass around the world. “We firmly believe that one day this [removing corn stover] will become such a necessary operation that we will have groups of farmers that will seek out projects like a Pellet Technology USA or a cellulosic ethanol plant, or something that will use this product,” Farris says.
“It will become so important for them to get some of it off the land that you will have a supply push as opposed to a demand pull.”