Ontario cooperative releases biomass agronomy guides, videos

By Katie Fletcher | December 28, 2016

Ontario Biomass Producers Cooperative Inc., a group of Ontario farmers producing and marketing biomass, recently released biomass agronomy guides and videos for switchgrass and miscanthus production. These agronomy guides were prepared to be used as a comprehensive resource for existing and future biomass producers.

According to OBPC, the agronomy guides provide practical answers and solutions to newcomers of Ag biomass production as well as very advanced growers. Both guides for switchgrass and miscanthus are organized similarly by providing an overview of the biomass crop and then different chapters on various stages of the production process: site and material selection, site preparation, establishment, post-establishment management, harvest management, storage and transport, and then ending with some conclusions.

The miscanthus agronomy guide concluded miscanthus is a low-input, high-yielding perennial grass capable of good yields in southwestern Ontario, but there are risks of overwintering death in the first year of establishment in some growing regions when rhizomes of poor quality are used. The costs of establishment are high, so field preparation and establishment practices warrant proper attention and care. Also, miscanthus has a wide harvest window and flexible harvest and storage options, and results in a biomass feedstock that can be used in an array of end-use applications. An exciting prospect for Ontario producers is the ongoing development of a no-till planting system that accommodates a soybean nurse crop.

The switchgrass agronomy guide came to similar conclusions. Like miscanthus, switchgrass is a low-input, high-yielding perennial grass, capable of even more impressive yields in southwestern Ontario. Switchgrass similarly has high establishment costs, a wide harvest window—restricted only by the active growing period of the crop—and flexible harvest and storage options, resulting in a biomass feedstock that can also be used in an array of end-use applications.

Toward the end of the switchgrass agronomy 2016 guide, some of these end-use applications were identified, and a separate guidebook for livestock uses of biomass grasses is being produced as a companion to the guide which discusses the livestock markets for switchgrass in more detail. The guide stated that switchgrass is now being used in nearly all markets where wheat straw is used. The existing markets and end uses identified for switchgrass in OBPC’s guidebook include livestock bedding, livestock feed, mushroom compost, switchgrass mulch, anaerobic digestion (AD) for biogas and combustion.

Switchgrass is being used as an energy crop feedstock for AD in Ontario, but, according to the guide, requires a higher energy price—such as a feed-in tariff or renewable natural gas price—to cover the cost of production of the switchgrass and equipment payback. The guide stated, “Ontario analysis shows a roughly equivalent biogas efficiency (cost of crop inputs relative to biogas output) for switchgrass grown on lower grade agricultural lands in Ontario compared to high-yield corn silage grown on high quality lands.”

Another point the guide made is that dry bales and ensiled green bales have been digested successfully, and that leafy, highly digestible selections of switchgrass (such as Shawnee) may prove most suitable in Ontario to improve biogas yield and input. A cascading value for switchgrass may also be achieved by first using it as livestock bedding and subsequently as a manure substrate to feed an anaerobic digester.

As for combustion, switchgrass has been found to be suitable for use in combustion appliances and boilers with the ability to burn higher ash fuels. Switchgrass has been burned as pellets, cubes, briquettes and as a bulk biomass. According to the guide, as a higher value densified fuel, it works best as a combination fuel with wood residues or crop milling residues such as wheat bran.

The guides were put together through OBPC’s partnership with the University of Guelph; the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs; and Resource Efficient Agricultural Production-Canada, with the help of OPBC’s sponsors Livestock Research Innovation Corporation Inc. and Ontario Agri-Food Technologies.

The agronomy guides and growing 101 for switchgrass and miscanthus videos can be accessed on OBPC’s website here.