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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Come fall, you’ve put in almost a year’s worth of toil and sweat to reap a plentiful harvest. When that time comes, the next thing on your (or any farmer’s) mind is the crop residue left behind.
As efficiency in farming techniques have increased, production and stalk size have as well. Such a plentiful result leaves similarly plentiful stover. Managing stover and maintaining yields in subsequent harvests is becoming more and more challenging. Farmer has to manage their own residue, and it is a tedious and inefficient process presently. Too much stover can limit seed choices, require more tillage, limit planting populations, affect plant emergence, require increased spraying, and most importantly, hinder grain yield.
There is, however, another way to channel the byproducts of your harvest, which can not only benefit you financially but, can also contribute to the health of your fields, livestock, and subsequent harvests.
Those seemingly lifeless leaves and stalks, your stover, left languishing in your field after the previous harvest could become quite valuable as processes of energy conversion, feedstock, and a great many other applications continue to improve.
As innovations to handling, baling, and converting stover become more and more viable, it’s important for farmers to stay on the cutting edge of these developments for the future.
But you may have heard such practices, while allegedly profitable, can harm soil and cause issues to crop yields.
Years ago that may have been the case. Lighter corn yields meant less stover and less likelihood for problems. Soil damage and erosion are a constant concern. But we have learned that in many cases, the benefits of pulling some of the stover from the field are far from detrimental.
The science has improved significantly. It’s been shown that it is beneficial to remove some of the stover from the field. Not to mention in an agricultural climate where global surpluses have left many crops (particularly corn) at prices well below that of production, finding another means of income is vital.
But what are we really talking about? It’s simple, really. Plant and harvest as you always would. The same way you, and your father, and grandfather before him did. Following the harvest, however, you need only collect and densely bale the remaining stover. And if that sounds daunting, that’s where AGCO’s Biomass Solutions team can help you get it done.
Then of course comes the question – “What exactly do you do with it?” There are a number of companies that can utilize and add value to your stover. One such company that removes and bales densely packed stover is Pellet Technology USA (PTUSA). They convert the baled stover into feed pellets for your livestock, high in fiber, protein, energy and other nutrients essential to a healthy diet. These pellets provide a necessary source of food, with a key ingredient from the residue residing in your fields.
These feed pellets provide options for overwintering beef cowherd and/or ration inclusion in starter, grower and finishing rations.
Stover can also be converted to energy pellets. These “power pellets” are then sent to biorefineries for conversion into biofuels, particularly ethanol. There is currently a growing demand for such pelleted residue to produce these fuels, as the market for alternative fuel sources continues to grow.
When weighed against all factors, residue management will become a necessary step farms must take to remain profitable and healthy in today’s precarious agricultural climate.
And as innovations and processes for stover removal, baling, and conversion continue, more and more companies will join this movement to give farmers the necessary incentives to consider selling their ag residue.
The stover is there. Now we must develop the infrastructure to catch up.
We mentioned PTUSA above as one of the industry leaders in stover removal, dense baling, and pelleting. Next time we’ll be venturing more into what is done, the marketplace, and how farmers will greatly benefit from the services they provide.
Stay tuned for that post in the coming weeks.
Still in its early stages in North America, the harvesting and processing industry for cellulosic ethanol now has something to show for years of research and planning in the form of three new cellulosic ethanol plants.
Bill Levy, chief executive officer of PacificAg, believes the North American biomass industry is poised for growth. “Over the next decade or so, it will become a major market,” he says.
Two of the three new cellulosic plants are in Iowa—one operated by DuPont in Nevada; the other in Emmetsburg is run by South Dakota-based ethanol producer POET/DSM—and both process corn stover. The other facility—located in Hugoton, Kan., and run by Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass—uses some wheat straw in addition to corn and milo stover, all of which is supplied exclusively by PacificAg.
For every 180 bushels of grain, the average producer will have about 4.3 tons of stover. To maintain sufficient organic matter in the soil and to prevent erosion, the USDA advises leaving an average of 2.3 tons per acre on the ground. Studies have shown that leaving too much residue can increase the likelihood of disease the following spring, make planting more difficult and use up nitrogen.
“The biggest benefit we bring growers is an alternative method for managing high residue,” says Denny Penland, business development manager for DuPont Cellulosic Ethanol. “And it also produces a platform for producing next year’s crop of corn.”
In Canada, there are currently no biomass plants online or in the works, but Charles Lalonde, a project manager with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, says he expects that’s going to change in the next few years. He says there will soon be demand for corn stover and wheat straw inside Canadian borders.
“With corn stover, we’re trying to develop a market for it in bioprocessing,” Lalonde explains. He anticipates that facility will focus on using cellulosic material to produce sugars for use in various biochemical productions.
U.S. plants making ethanol from grains, mainly corn, are currently at capacity, producing 12 billion to 13 billion gallons annually. “Right now, the industry is waiting for the cellulosic side of these projects to get up and running,” Levy says. By comparison, it’s estimated that the new plants will be able to produce around 75 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year.
Plans for seven new cellulosic ethanol plants have been announced by the USDA, three of which will use agricultural waste, while the others will use resources like wood chips, wood waste and municipal solid waste.
And while the bulk of the U.S. market now is corn stover, Glenn Farris, AGCO’s manager of segment strategy for biomass/industrials, expects a market for dedicated energy crops to emerge, such as Miscanthus and switchgrass.
Farris says he believes that by 2030 more producers will see 300 bushels of corn per acre. That means 8 to 10 tons of stover per acre on the ground within the next 15 years.
Says Levy, “I think we’re going to see a revolution in the biomass market in the years to come. As the world turns to renewable energy, agriculture is going to be a direct benefactor.”