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Farmers ‘bale out’ to ethanol

By Staff | Mar 15, 2015

-Contributed photos POET-DSM’S BALE YARD holds large round and large square stover bales. The 3-acre yard stores enough stover to keep the cellulosic ethanol plant running for three weeks.

kschwaller@evertek.net

EMMETSBURG – Stover buyers from POET-DSM in Emmetsburg are no longer pounding the pavement to fill orders for 2015.

Those contracts have been completed, according to B.J. Schany, commodity manager for POET’s Project Liberty in Emmetsburg.

Schany spoke at the 2015 Ag Summit on Feb. 19 in Emmetsburg.

POET-DSM converts corn stover – corn cobs, leaves and husks – into renewable fuel and is a worldwide pioneer in the field of cellulosic ethanol.

“We (contracted) about 200,000 acres last year, and when the plant’s up to full capacity we’ll be up around that 300,000-acre mark,” Schany said. “We’ve contracted about 400 producers in an area from Everly to Britt, and from Jackson to Storm Lake.”

He said their buying area will most likely shrink over time as more producers become comfortable with it and get on board.

“Right now we have a lot of guys sitting on the sidelines and watching,” he said.

Schany said the plant, which went into production in late August, should be at or near capacity in roughly eight months.

He said they aim to remove one-quarter of a field’s corn residue, reducing stress on tillage equipment due to increased corn plant populations.

Removing 25 percent (or about one ton per acre) of the residue also leaves enough behind to help improve soil organic matter, Schany said.

When the plant runs full steam, it will produce between 20 million and 25 million gallons of ethanol annually.

Schany said POET/DSM pays grain producers about $20 million annually and outlined benefits from that payout.

“We’re starting to see some pop-up businesses – we have a new implement dealer in town,” he said. “Before we started baling there were probably two or three balers in all of Palo Alto County, and there might be 40 or 50 of them now.

“We’re seeing some trucking guys get started, and maybe a half-dozen young kids coming back to the area after (college) to help their dads. It’s starting to build as we go along.”

Project Liberty uses both round bales and large square bales. The easiest way to harvest the bales, Schany said, is using their “E-Z Bale” system, whereby the combine’s chopper and spreader are turned off to allow the material flowing through the combine to form a narrow windrow, which is then baled.

He said the system works well, since farmers’ time is at a premium in the fall, making it difficult at times to get tillage work done and get residue baled.

He said ISU research shows that leaving at least 2 tons of residue per acre is enough to maintain soil organic matter and protect against wind erosion. He said the E-Z Bale system allows for that requirement and added that tillage reduces soil organic matter.

“If we could, we’d use 100 percent corn cobs, but nobody is going to get the corn picker out of the grove and start doing that again,” Schany said. “But these narrow windrows make them easy to bale.”

He said this is Project Liberty’s fifth year of baling.

Harvesting biomass

Schany said there are several reasons for harvesting biomass, including increased productivity.

“When corn is $7 per bushel there isn’t too much call for this, but now that it’s down to $3.80 or so, it becomes a lot bigger deal,” he said.

In addition, he said, it pays to harvest biomass by keepinging the nation independent of foreign oil and yield increases-resulting from faster spring soil warm-up, leading to faster germination, and in turn, a 2 to 7 percent yield increase on corn-on-corn acres.

Nutrient savings also come into the picture, he said. Nitrogen is more available because it isn’t tied up breaking down materials, and studies show an increase of up to 13 percent more nitrogen can result from this baling process.

He said phosphorous removal is minimal at less than 2 pounds per acre. He said most phosphorous is removed in the form of grain, showing that 174 bushels of corn equal 61 pounds per acre of phosphorous removal.

Schany said potassium is the only nutrient being removed at a rate that may need to be replaced, saying 10 to 15 pounds of potassium can be removed with the E-Z bale process, depending on rainfall and time of harvest.

Effective residue management is increased with harvesting biomass, there is less disease pressure.

Since corn borers can over-winter in cobs, that issue is removed. Schany said fuel savings also occur.

He said the biggest concern POET-DSM hears from farmers is that they don’t want any bales to have to work around in their fields in the spring.

Schany said the revenue it can generate would provide the other side of the coin.

“That’s going to be culture change – there’s no physical way we can bring all that feed stock into the plant in time for the planters to roll. We’d probably need 1,000 acres of stack yard to do that, and we have about 25 acres.

“But we have guys that are getting more comfortable with it, and some guys are moving their contracts back into the summer.

“If you talk to your banker, the banker might say you need an extra $20 per acre, so it’s another revenue source for (producers),” he said.

Schany added he hopes to see the volume of stover production increase to the amount that it can be traded as a commodity.

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