Solving the Crop Residue Conundrum

By Rona Johnson | February 22, 2011

The bad news is that the infrastructure for utilizing crop residues for bioenergy production has a ways to go before it can be cost effective for large commercial-scale plants. The good news is that there are a lot of smart, experienced people working on this and I’m confident they will succeed.

Before this can happen though―and I’ve said this a million times―farmers must be convinced that this is a profitable use of their time and energy. It’s difficult right now to make the case because farm income is high and they aren’t really looking for ways to enhance their income. But this could change in a heartbeat as farming success largely depends on the weather, federal farm policy and input costs (fuel, fertilizer, seed, etc.). Although we can’t predict the weather, we can presume that the new Congress will likely make cuts to all federal programs including the Farm Bill, which expires in 2012, and input costs aren’t likely to drop anytime soon.

This means that the biomass industry must be prepared for the time when farmers are actively seeking ways to supplement their income, and is why this month’s magazine is dedicated to the collection, transport, storage and densification of crop residues.

According to a USDA study, “Biomass from Crop Residues Cost and Supply Estimates,” crop residues have the potential to displace 12.5 percent of petroleum imports or 5 percent of electricity consumption in today’s markets. The study found that the total biomass supply in the high-density crop production areas of the country ranges from 297 billion to 313 billion pounds, depending on the price level. The researchers also surmised that this figure could grow to 500 billion pounds in the next two decades based on trends from the past two decades of increased crop yields and declining livestock demand for forage.

The study also concluded that crop residues are probably the lowest cost form of biomass supply. “Throughout the Corn Belt, residue costs have a narrow price range, from $16 to $18 per ton, even after making allowances for delivery to a large plant,” according to the study. “The range of costs is wider in the Great Plains due to diverse growing conditions, conservation requirements, and forage demands. The eastern section of the spring wheat area has extensive residue supplies at moderate costs. Also, the eastern section of the winter Wheat Belt has a cost advantage when feed grain residues, wheat straw, and residues diverted from feed are combined.”

Of course, the researchers took into account the impact of crop residue removal on soil fertility and the farmer’s bottom line. They deduced that reduced tillage and partial residue harvest may maintain soil quality and increase producer profits. Several researchers at colleges and universities across the U.S. have done studies on this and have made recommendations based on the conditions in the areas where the crops are produced. I would suggest if you are looking for that type of information that you reach out to your local institutions of higher learning.

The USDA study has a lot of information that I couldn’t possibly fit in this column, so if you are looking for more details, go to