Meeting the needs of famers critical to biomass, residue harvest

By Sue Retka Schill | January 24, 2014

While the baling of crop residues and forage crops is nothing new, the sheer volume that will be required to supply a commercial biorefinery makes developing a reliable, cost effective supply chain a challenge. Four speakers addressed different aspects of the challenge in the latest segment of Biomass Magazine’s ongoing webinar series.   

Abengoa Bioenergy is nearing completion on construction of a cellulosic ethanol facility in southwest Kansas at Hugoton that will need about 320,000 dry tons of biomass annually. Tom Robb, manager of institutional relations, ran through the multiple risk factors the company evaluated in developing the supply chain for the project. “Weather risk is more than just snow,” he said. “There are tremendous amounts of biomass in Indiana and Iowa, but it tends to rain there in the fall, and that would be a harvest risk.” The dry falls, plus the presence of irrigated corn were two of the reasons the company chose the southwestern Kansas site, he said. Abengoa expects that more than 80 percent of its feedstock supply will come from irrigated corn acres in the area, although another reason for choosing the area was the availability of alternative feedstocks such as wheat straw, milo stubble and grasses.

He reminded listeners on the webinar that building trust with farmer suppliers is going to be critical and following stewardship principles to ensure crop residue removal doesn’t harm the land is important. “What you do on a farmer’s field this year earns your right to come back next year,” he said. The biomass harvest operation needs to fit smoothly into the farmers’ operations and be able to adjust to the farmer’s needs. “We have a lot of double crops that present unique challenges,” he said. “If the farmer’s going to plant wheat after the corn comes off, the farmer will call and say he wants to plant in three days, and we have to be able to get in there and get [the stover] off.”

Pacific Ag is a feedstock supply company with experience in meeting the challenges described by Abengoa’s Robb. Harrison Pettit started his segment of the webinar by explaining how the Oregon-based company started in the 1980s baling forages. Today, it supplies both domestic and export markets with forages and crop residues in several formats: pellets, cubes, large square bales and bales that have been compressed to double the density before shipment.

He advocated that bioenergy developers look beyond the open market model that is so familiar in corn country to consider a dedicated supply chain. “It changes the nature of the market from highly liquid commodities and turns it into long-term partnerships,” he said. The change from a purchasing mentality to a partnership mentality requires transparency on costs and margins, but that helps to overcome many of the supply chain risks. He cited the work done by Rabobank analyst Justin Sherrad who followed the development of supply chains for potatoes, onions, carrots and other specialty crops, quoting Sherrad:  “The cooperation between companies in a dedicated supply chain builds new levels of trust between them, fostering a basis for innovation in production processes, products and brands.”  Building a dedicated supply chain based on long-term partnerships with suppliers ensures reliable quantity and helps with maintaining quality, Pettit said.

A third speaker in the webinar addressed the development of equipment and harvest systems. AGCO began working on the biomass harvest challenge about five years, initially with existing equipment. In the effort to reduce costs by eliminating field operations, the company has developed a stover baler that can be towed behind a combine. Glenn Farris explained that not only did it eliminate several operations, but it produced a bale with the least amount of ash, since the residue never touched the ground until it was compacted and baled.

In a data analysis of field operations, Farris said 10 out of 15 supply chain cost influences can be impacted, with four of those being related to baling operations. Bale density alone has a big impact, as does field efficiency.  Farris showed the difference between 2012 and 2013 as the company worked through ways to improve the productivity of the harvest crew, both through training and better maintenance, explaining that a 20 percent improvement in efficiency translates into $9 a ton lower cost. In 2012, the average failure rate was every seven bales, counting whenever the baler stopped for any reason. In 2013, that improved to 40 bales.

The removal of crop residues raises the question of the impact on soils, addressed in the webinar by Brian Wienhold, a soil scientist with the USDA Agriculture Research Service in Lincoln, Neb. He reviewed the major concerns associated with residue removal, including the potential loss of soil organic matter, loss of nutrients, increase in wind and water erosion and increase in soil compaction. “Residue removal effects are site specific,” he said. “There’s a lot of diversity in areas where corn is produced and corn stover might be removed. That makes it difficult to come up with a single prescription.”  He said that as more is learned about the relationships between all the factors, new site specific tools will be needed to be used alongside the understanding of topography and soil types in determining how much residue can be removed. 

The webinar will be available for viewing on the Biomass Magazine webite here shortly.