Using crops like switchgrass, or over-mature hay for energy can add profit to agriculture’s bottom line
Jonathan McClelland manages West Nova Agro Commodities (WNAC), a community-owned grain elevator. For the past four years, WNAC has been working on the concept of using over-mature hay for fuel.
“We’re using a model of going directly from producers to the end-consumers,” explained McClelland, adding, “The production, processing and use of hay-based fuel is intended to be mainly within a 30 to 40 km radius of WNAC.
There are several benefits to using over-mature hay for fuel, McClelland says. “It allows local farms to make good quality hay when the weather is good and the hay is at its peak quality. Later, in the summer and fall, the same equipment can be used to harvest poorer quality hay as a new cash crop.”
Farmers can use their existing equipment, and can harvest the crop at times that are traditionally less busy.
This WNAC pilot project is based on developing the whole value chain — from production to processing, to consumers.
Roger Sampson, the Executive Director of REAP (Resource Efficient Agriculture Production) Canada, has been on the forefront of sustainability solutions for the agricultural sector since his agency started in the mid-1980s.
Sampson recalled, “In 1991, we were concerned about the farm production surplus crisis, realizing we had to find non-food markets.”
This led REAP to consider ways of growing crops for energy and fibre uses, which uncovered the potential uses of native warm season grasses, like switchgrass and other perennials.
“This is an ideal way to capture solar energy on marginal farmlands and convert it into biomass,” explained Sampson.
Seeking the best way to get the biomass to market, make farmers money, and bring new economic activity, REAP turned its attention to fibre and energy markets.
Sampson says switchgrass is a very productive species in the southern Canadian Prairies and Eastern Canada. “In eastern Canada, we manage the harvest by mowing the crop, typically in mid-October, leaving it, and then baling it the next spring. We leave it so it can be harvested and stored in a reliable state without moisture (i.e. risk of rot), and about 90 percent of the chemicals in the grass are leached out (bringing it to a similar chemical composition as wood pellets, which are very low in chlorine and potassium [alkaline-forming compounds that can cause combustion problems]).
“Also, you need not apply potassium or phosphorus, with grass nutrients going back into the fields.”
Sampson says this method has not yet be tested in Western Canada, “and, with strong Prairie winds, there is a lot more wind row movement.
Sampson says, “Grass stems have outstanding fibre properties for fibre application and the rest of the grass can be used for thermal applications, like fuel pellets for heating or even livestock feeding. We need to fractionate them and find the best value for particular grass parts. With current fibre prices, stems are highly valuable in fibre-related markets and leaves would be most valuable for livestock feed markets and, secondly, for rural markets without much access to natural gas.”
According to the REAP website, of the North American farmland (i.e. 932 and 168 million acres in the U.S. and Canada, respectively), they estimate 150 million acres can be dedicated to energy farming without palpably affecting North America’s food supply.
REAP envisions a total production capacity of 424 million and 55 million tonnes being achieved by growing grasses on 130 million acres in the U.S. and 23.4 million acres in Canada.
The most promising regions REAP sees for developing a grass pellet fuel industry are those where hay production costs are low and heating costs are high (due to long winters and high fuel costs).
Based on hay prices, land costs, relative winter heat costs, and warm season grass performance data in North America, some of the best opportunities exist in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. †