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Saving the Ogallala: A Sinking Feeling

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Farmers on the U.S. High Plains have managed one of the great feats of modern agriculture—turning semi-arid prairies into some of the most productive land on the planet. Overcoming obstacles of less-than-ideal climate and soil, producers in the region have been significant players in efforts to push the world’s crop yields to new heights.

Now, however, farmers and others are concerned with the decrease in water remaining in the Ogallala Aquifer, a key resource for agriculture in the region. There are numerous efforts under way to conserve water—endeavors with positive results that apply to farming in many regions of North America. While the diminishing amount of water in the Ogallala is cause for alarm, there are certainly reasons to be hopeful.

The Ogallala, or High Plains Aquifer, ranks as the largest such groundwater source in the U.S. Stretching from Texas and New Mexico to South Dakota and Wyoming, it underlies eight states and represents more than one-quarter of the nation’s entire irrigation water. In terms of agricultural output, it supplies an area that produces approximately one-fifth of the annual total of U.S. corn, wheat and cattle.

New technologies and approaches to water usage may hopefully one day solve the problem of dwindling water resources, or at least buy more time. Brent Rogers, who farms in Kansas’ Sheridan and Graham counties, and serves on the board of directors for Kansas Groundwater Management District (GMD) 4, is working with other farmers and leaders in his groundwater management district.

Some of the measures they’re undertaking are to apply water probe technology on a wider scale to first track water use, then implement practical conservation measures that can cut usage, while attempting to maintain crop output. Through a combination of federal cost incentives like USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), farmers have started retiring unused or outdated irrigation wells and better monitoring those still in production to find where they can make cuts.

“We saw the value of water probes and started funding them. They will save you water. We went through our GMD members and said, ‘Hey, we will fund up to $1,000 per probe,’” says Rogers, whose GMD4 covers three full counties and part of seven others in northwest Kansas. Farmers have started to respond, with more than 100 new probes installed in the last year alone.

“By saving water today, you’re also providing more time for the people who develop the crop irrigation and genetics technologies involved in increasing water-use efficiency,” says Kansas State University water resources and civil engineer David Steward. Already, he says, crop genetic improvements are adding to water-use efficiency at around 2% per year.

“Water probes, variable-rate technology, gene shuffling, crop drought genes … these are all just pieces of the puzzle that we need. They’re just tickling the cusp of what’s coming,” Rogers says. “It’s going to work if we can all just stay on the horse.”

To read much more about this complex issue and the measures farmers and others are taking to save this valuable resource, see the full story: Saving the Ogallala: A Sinking Feeling

Biomass at a Glance

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Biomass has been around since the dawn of man. In today’s quest to feed the world as well as quench our energy needs, the potential for biomass is huge.

It’s estimated that the Earth grows about 130 billion tons of biomass annually. That’s more than six times the world’s energy use. Today, we have the ability to convert biomass residue into fuel, high-value chemicals, recyclable products, feed pellets and more.

However, only a small percentage is being captured. According to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, if more biomass was captured and converted, the residue could provide 14% of the U.S. electricity use or 13% of the nation’s motor fuel. And, that’s not all – the removal of ag residue also is proven to increase farming yields and profitability.

Think of it, a source of food and renewable energy, and increases profits for farmers all from the residue that is normally left on the fields.

Learn more about the impact that biomass is having throughout the world today by downloading an informative infographic we prepared with key data and information: biomass-at-a-glance.

Women in Agriculture: Finding Common Ground

Born of a partnership between and funding from the United Soybean Board and the National Corn Growers Association, an organization called CommonGround has pulled together a network of 200 women farmers across 19 states to educate others on how food is grown.

Cari Nance and son, Wyatt.

Cari Nance and son, Wyatt.

“The biggest strength is the desire for these farmers to have conversations with moms who have great questions and concerns about their food,” says Missy Morgan, associate director of CommonGround. She says CommonGround members take to the airwaves, blogs, local events and social media to provide knowledgeable advocates and science-backed research.

“Our women farmers really have compassion for moms, because for the most part our farmers are also mothers,” Morgan explains. “They know how much moms care about giving their children the best, safest foods because they care about that too.”

Of their many contributions, CommonGround volunteers often find themselves addressing misconceptions, from how they raise their animals to production methods.

In South Carolina, Caci Nance found CommonGround through the state soybean board director. She’d already been blogging about farming and raising a family, and education was part of her job too.

Recently, a commenter on a CommonGround blog post raised the issue of nitrate pollution in runoff. Nance swiftly addressed the issue, relying on her farming experience and expertise as her county’s water quality educator.

“Volunteers attend a national conference, where they have the opportunity to hear the latest consumer research and insights, and also meet women farmers in the program from other states,” says Morgan. “Our state partners often have state-level conferences where they plan local activities for the year.”

Nance says: “CommonGround utilizes women in the best way I’ve seen to make conversations relatable and real. Women are much more likely to reach out and connect in a conversational manner.”

And, she adds, “No matter what kind of farmer we are, we care not only about the bottom line, but also the environment, the livestock. We all want to take care of what we have.”

See the full story: Women in Agriculture: Finding Common Ground

Running the Numbers

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By Glenn Farris

In my last post, I discussed the business plan for Pellet Technology USA (PTUSA) and their strategy for utilization of over 100,000 tons of densely packed corn stover. What makes this undertaking especially interesting is that they will utilize that significant amount of corn stover year after year to create their sustainable business. They aren’t planning to be a one-hit wonder. And that kind of volume isn’t something you can just order online from Amazon.

As we worked with the PTUSA team on providing the overall solution to collect, bale, pick-up, transport and deliver a majority of the corn stover, another key item was in play: the short- and long-term economics for the local market.

As we mentioned in a previous post, within a 50-mile radius of York, Nebraska, there is an estimated 2.5MM tons of ag residue from the corn fields. We will deliver 100,000 tons for this year’s supply. But that is just eight percent of the available residue. Eight percent. So 92 percent is just lying there – literally – waiting to be harvested.

So, let’s say the harvest amount jumps to 15 percent or 20 percent. To harvest it all takes equipment and manpower. And that means jobs. A lot of jobs.

With such enormous potential, PTUSA announced in 2015 that they would build a plant in York, to process and pelletize the ag residue, adding value to local corn, energy and animal producers. In April 2016, construction began, and the plant went online in late November 2016. The project created construction jobs. And, now that the plant is open, there are jobs available at the facility.

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And then – there’s the trickle-down effect. It means jobs in the local market to handle it all. From grocery stores, to cafes, to hotels. Plus it means other jobs, such as trucking and construction.

And then there’s the tax revenue. It goes back into the local economy, generating millions of dollars for the community.

Collection and removal of ag residue is also a new source of revenue for the local farmer. Farmers receive money for every ton of ag residue collected and baled. With the price of corn today being on the downside, that’s money that can help a farmer’s bottom line.

(There is another value, too: taking the ag residue off the land. But we’ll save that for a later post.)

And, just think for a second. What I described is just one local market.

What is the term? Think global, act local?

Think of how much stover is available each year across the Heartland. A lot. As far as the eye can see. So, if there is about 2.5MM tons of residue for every 50 miles, what if there was a plant like York every 50-100 miles? Think how it could drive the economics in those local markets.

Then think, how much stover is available in Nebraska? Or Iowa? Or Kansas?

You get the (big) picture. The potential is huge.

If you start to imagine every harvest season, the symphony of Challenger and Massey Ferguson tractors, flail shredders, Hesston balers running across fields clearing residue and stackers building giant walls of bales at the field ‘s edge. Then trucks transporting the high-density bales to the factories producing pellets for feed stock or fuel – or things we’ve yet to even imagine – you can start to see how this “trash” may be the engine to revive local economies.

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Best of all, its an annual event. It’s renewable. It’s green, and it’s clean.

And with the help of AGCO’s Biomass Solutions team, it could be the answer to a lot of prayers across numerous farming communities.

 

You Need How Much?

 

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By Glenn Farris

What do you do when your business plan calls for over 100,000 tons of densely packed corn stover … and you will process that quantity of corn stover every year–adding value to the local economy in a sustainable way?

It’s not like you can call your local supplier to fulfill the order. No one has that volume of square bales available.

That was the challenge Pellet Technology USA’s (PTUSA) founder Russ Zeeck and Business Strategy Manager Joe Luna faced when they were mapping out their idea for a new company, just a few short years ago.

Luna came to PTUSA from the West Coast. There, he worked in ag, finance and technology. He knew of AGCO and our industry expertise.

He heard that AGCO had been perfecting the process of collecting large quantities of stover and making them into high-density bales. That early work was mainly being done to in the energy market.

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Zeeck then stepped in.  A 30-year vet of the ag and energy industries, he drove and developed his idea to create pellets from corn stover for use as a green energy supplement or as a consistent animal feed product.

But the numbers that came out of the production equations were staggering. Could they actually secure this volume of stover? How would it be harvested? How would it be transported to the facility for processing? Most importantly, could it be delivered year-over-year?

There were so many moving parts that had to be coordinated. Who has the equipment, technology and expertise to make it happen?

“I knew of AGCO from previous projects,” said Luna. “So when we met, they came at this project with the attitude of a partner. They not only have a lot of equipment but they also have a lot of expertise. Remember, we’re still a young company. But to be successful, my thinking was to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants.’ AGCO has several hundred thousand tons of experience, and we wanted to build on that.”

So, the AGCO Biomass Solutions team went to work. Together with the PTUSA team, we mapped out the strategy to secure the plentiful ag residue. From providing the hundreds of pieces of equipment needed from Massey Ferguson tractors, to Hesston windrowers, Hesston high-density square balers, and finally, transportation, our strategy took shape.

Our goal is to help our customers – like PTUSA – create something. And that “something” is changing the way that we think about ag residue.

PTUSA is  creating a business of collecting what used to be considered “trash” in the fields – that left over corn stalk material. In the past, farmers would collect it and use it as bedding for their livestock or to cover the dirt floors of their barns. Or, they would just till it back into the ground. We’ve now found this practice does more harm than good (more on that in a later column).

Once we map it all out, it’s quite literally a “symphony” of collecting the “trash” across a 50-mile radius of fields in Nebraska. But, there is just a 30-60 day window for the AGCO Biomass team to do it all – cut, windrow, bale, pick-up and deliver. And, we’re on track to do just that.

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It means that the 100,000-plus tons of high-density bales that the PTUSA team was imagining – which will fill a 50-acre field, seven bales high – will be sitting next to their new facility in York, in just a few short weeks. And, it’s enough stover to last all year long. Sixty days of hard work for a year’s worth of supply? Not too shabby.

We’ve solved that problem. However, knowing that within a 50-mile radius, there is estimated to be 2.5MM tons of available ag residue, it begs yet another question on this biomass project.  What impact would it have on the local economy, if we could harvest that 2.5MM tons?

We’ll look at that next time.

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