Fuel in the Field

If not in its infancy, biomass farming is perhaps still toddling along. Yet, most indicators point to a significant increase in production and an additional source of revenue for farmers, as well as a variety of other benefits, depending on the crop being grown.

By Richard Banks

Many areas in the Corn Belt actually produce higher yields if a portion of the stover is removed

Many areas in the Corn Belt actually produce higher yields if a portion of the stover is removed

Signs point to a number of infrastructure, process and equipment enhancements that will make the harvesting, transportation and storage of biomass much more efficient in the next few years, if not sooner.

For starters, consider the harvesting of corn stover, which in many areas of the country can increase corn yields for the following year. Also, perennial grasses such as miscanthus and switchgrass can be grown on marginal land, require little in the way of inputs, and offer a number of environmental benefits, such as helping to filter runoff and prevent erosion.

Among such biomass-producing crops, stover already has a foothold. It’s readily available in many parts of the Corn Belt, where a partial harvest does help yields. Also, it’s used as a livestock feed supplement, which became especially popular during the recent drought when hay price increases soared upwards of 150% and more in just a year’s time.

Rising Demand

Now, however, farmers and the biofuels industry are looking ahead at increased production of all things biomass, including the crops mentioned above, as well as energy sorghum, woody biomass and more. The U.S Department of Energy predicts total crop- and pastureland planted in bioenergy crops will increase from less than 10 million acres today to between 60 and 80 million acres over the next 15 years.

One tangible result of that prediction is the number of new facilities being built to burn the crops outright for power or convert them into ethanol and other products that will replace or supplement petrochemicals. States where cellulosic ethanol plants are being constructed include Kansas, Florida and Iowa, where at least two are in the works.

One of those plants, which is being built in Nevada, Iowa, by DuPont—the company’s first cellulosic ethanol plant—will produce 30 million gallons of ethanol per year. That alone will require about 350,000 tons of corn stover from approximately 175,000 acres. The other plant is being constructed in Emmetsburg, Iowa, by South Dakota-based ethanol producer POET, which plans to open additional facilities and produce as much as 1 billion gallons per year.

An AGCO Advantage

The biomass to make the ethanol will eventually come from a variety of crops, says Dr. Matt Darr, assistant professor of Agricultural & Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University. “Other bioenergy crops, such as switchgrass and miscanthus, have some long-term opportunities, and have certain advantages in energy crop production. But most of the cellulosic ethanol plants and biorefineries that are under construction or under consideration today are very much corn stover-centric. It’s the prime mover in energy crops right now because it’s available.”

As a result of this increased demand, new processes and technologies are in development to help make the gathering and transport of biomass, particularly stover, more efficient and profitable for the farmer. Especially promising is single-pass harvesting, which promises the operator considerable time and fuel savings over other methods currently in use.

“Single-pass,” explains Maynard Herron, AGCO’s engineering manager at its Hesston, Kan., plant, “involves a combine harvesting the grain and cutting the biomass, while pulling a baler that bundles the biomass in one trip through the field. That system will save 10 to 12% in fuel and time over a two-pass [method], which typically has a tractor pulling a baler after the combine has already harvested the grain.”

According to many industry watchers, including Darr, AGCO equipment already offers a decided advantage in single-pass harvesting. “AGCO has a unique solution for single-pass harvesting equipment with their new series of combines that are single-pass compatible. AGCO is also a leader in the industry with single-pass baling products to provide producers and large energy companies the opportunity to make single-pass harvesting a reality within a supply chain.”

“That’s right,” says Herron. “Specifically, we’ve built our new Massey Ferguson 9500 Series combine to handle a high volume of grain, as well as MOG [material other than grain]. Our balers, in particular the Hesston 2170XD, are designed to make high-density bales that can handle bulky and resilient residue, as well as other biomass-intensive crops.”

The technology in Hesston by Massey Ferguson balers is ready-made to handle stover, as well as other biomass crops. Already, the Hesston 2170XD large square baler has earned its stripes for how densely it can pack the bulky crops, says David Ibbetson, a Kansas-based custom baler who uses two 2170XD balers to bundle some 15,000 bales each year in Iowa. He also uses Hesston round balers to bundle another 1,500-plus bales closer to his home in Yates Center.

The reason for using Hesston, Ibbetson says, is because “they create a large, dense bale,” which he says is critical to the efficient transport and storage of stover. He adds: “They’re also the most reliable, and they’ve been around the longest and offer a long history of good balers. I’m comfortable taking them on the road and handling such a big crop.”

Several other pieces of equipment that will aid in the harvesting of residue are now in the pipeline at AGCO. One such tool is a corn header that can harvest upwards of 150% higher volumes of corn and MOG. Another is a receiver chute that’s attached to the front of the baler and allows it to take in MOG without it being deposited on the ground before baling. “By having the baler accept the residue directly,” explains Herron, “you cut in half the amount of ash in the bale. Those cleaner bales, of course, are more valuable and make this approach to stover more profitable to the farmer.”

Ready or Not

Add the additional revenue from increased yields and sale of stover, plus the savings from having to till less, and it all pencils out to additional dollars in the grower’s pocket. “That adds up real quick,” says Herron.

What also adds up is a future with increased production of stover, miscanthus, sorghum and other such crops. “Bioenergy is coming,” says Darr.

“Bioproducts are coming. Biofuels are coming. This is a tremendous opportunity for agriculture—especially in the Midwest—to take hold and be a player in that marketplace. And it’s going to take smart decisions and thoughtful decisions from producers and integrators and biorefineries together to do it right.

“But we have a tremendous opportunity to leverage the work ethic and the knowledge and the expertise of North American farmers to really get the bioenergy industry up and running off the ground, and hopefully create a successful new bioeconomy.”