Expanding ag economy
RADCLIFFE – The development of the cellulosic ethanol industry has been paying off for small businesses, said an Iowa State University study.
Andy Moser, a 15-year custom harvester from Nevada, said it’s true.
Square-baling stover for DuPont’s cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, he said, “has really worked out for me. It’s extended my season by a few months.”
Stover is the stalks, leaves and cobs left on the field after corn harvesting.
This is the third year that Moser has been working with DuPont and ISU in learning essentials like how much stover to remove, especially from continuous corn fields, the density of bales the ethanol plant needs and how to keep machinery running at peak efficiency.
“The first year we did 3,500 acres for Dupont,” Moser said. “Last year, we did 14,000 acres with six cutters, six balers and three stackers.
“This year were at 15,000 acres with four cutters and balers, plus the stackers.”
Overall, he said, DuPont contracted to buy the stover from 120,000 acres surrounding Nevada.
He said in 2015, with his experienced crew, he’s looking to see how many acres are possible for harvesting with two cutters and balers and a stacker.
Moser said Dupont came to him, since he was already providing silage chopping and round stover bales for cattle bedding for farmers.
The process is to take roughly half of the stover off a field. It’s been a tough sell for some farmers top sign up their acres to sell to DuPont, Moser said.
“It’s something that’s still pretty new,” Moser said. The primary objections farmers have include removing nutrients from the field and extra traffic creating soil compaction.
But overall, Moser said, he thinks taking excessive amounts of stover from a field is key to increasing yields.
By taking the stover, he said, it will require less fall tillage, saving fuel costs, plus researchers believe with less residue, ground warms faster in spring, allowing planting an earlier start.
“If we are going to get yields up to 250 to 300 bushels (per acre),” Moser said, “the only way we’re going to do it is taking stover off the field.”
To hit the 300-bushel level, farmers will have to plant heavier populations in each acre. The more plants in the field, the more stover is left behind.
“So you have to ask,” Moser said, gesturing to the corn residue on the ground. “Is that trash, or is it gold?
“I say it’s gold.”
Addressing farmers’ soil nutrient concern, Moser acknowledged the issue. “Yea, we’re taking primarily (phosphorus and potassium) off.”
However, he said, with the concentration of many hogs throughout central Iowa farm country, “they’ll put the P and K right back on with hog poop.
“And the less stover, the less tillage, so all they have to do is knife the manure in, and they’re done.”
He said removing stover “is a great tool for continuous corn.”
Moser said his crews, comprised of 26 seasonal employees, are cutting and windrowing residue within two days after combining.
Balers are hitting those fields two days later, followed by stackers.
“We’ve got 15 days to get to a field after the combines,” he said. “So far we’re staying right on the heels of combines.”
A market for many
Moser said the development of the cellulosic ethanol industry has created more than a new market for farmers, but custom balers like himself, small implement shops serving stover baling interests and trucking firms with flat beds for hauling bales.
“What we are trying to do is put a supply chain in place as was done for corn,” said Matthew Darr, an ISU associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, “beginning in the 1800s and evolving into what we have today.
“But stover bales are a bulkier product and we need that supply chain to fully evolve over just a few years.”
Farmers with animals have harvested corn stover for bedding and silage for decades. But collecting stover as biofuel feedstock and creating and managing a corn stover supply chain on an industrial scale is new to Iowa corn producers and biorefinery operators.
In 2009, the ISU corn stover supply chain research team led by Darr, began working with DuPont at the BioCentury Research Farm researching ways to grow and develop an industrial feedstock supply chain and achieve a quality and economically viable product for biorefineries, while maintaining soil health and quality.
Researchers and farmers know that leaving corn stover in place after harvest is important for erosion control, replenishing soil organic matter and returning crop nutrients to the soil.
But as corn yields per acre have risen over time, seeds are planted more densely and corn stover left after grain harvest has increased.
With yields reaching 180 bushels per acre, an increasing percentage of stover on Iowa fields can be harvested, providing crop production benefits to farmers and an economical feedstock for biorefineries.
“Matt and his team have a lot of time invested in researching this,” Moser said, “so I trust what they have to say about it.
“And the data collection on the ash and the bale density that the team continues to do really helps us through the year to adjust our machines for maximum efficiency.”
In 2013, with funding from the Leading the Bioeconomy Initiative funded by the Iowa Legislature, project researchers developed supply chain training sessions and educated over 70 supply chain employees. Training sessions focused on five distinct areas of the biomass supply chain: windrowing equipment, baling equipment, managing biomass moisture, maximizing biomass quality and maximizing productivity logistics.
Trainee knowledge grew in all areas, with growth in windrowing and biomass quality.
The economic value of the training was calculated by measuring the direct net value of improved biomass quality and supply chain logistics.
For the 2013 corn stover harvest season, this value had a direct impact of more than $225,000 to local new businesses that were engaged in feedstock collection.
“Our process improvement training also led to a 4.5 percent increase in corn stover product density, which reduces the number of semi-trucks on Iowa roads by more than 1,200 per year,” said Darr.
The team developed software and data analytics tools focused on providing real-time information to the 15 to 20 small businesses that are supporting the biomass supply chain in central Iowa.
This information is located on an online web portal and provides instant access for each business to monitor machinery performance throughout the harvest season.
It also focuses on providing key information to support decisions that each business will make throughout the harvest season to ensure they maintain profitability and continue to grow the biomass supply chain industry.
“The real-time information systems facilitate just-in-time logistics for machinery support and upkeep for each small business,” said Darr. “This will help them manage parts and fuel inventory, and maximize uptime of the machines.”
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