Vermeer field tests machines to harvest biomass

By Ryan C. Christiansen
Web exclusive posted Sept. 12, 2008 at 9:36 a.m. CST

Pella, Iowa-based Vermeer Corp., an agricultural, construction, environmental, and industrial equipment manufacturer, plans to field test its prototype CX770 Cob Harvester this fall to identify any changes might be required before introducing a final product. The harvester is a wagon-style cob collector that trails behind the combine so that grain and cobs can be collected in one pass.

Earlier this year, the company purchased the patent for the harvester from a farmer who invented the implement a decade ago, said Jay Van Roekel, segment manager for Vermeer.

Van Roekel said Vermeer has formed a team that is looking at the company's inventory to determine what it has to offer for biomass collection and processing and to see what the company needs to add to its product line to support the burgeoning biomass energy industry. "We have some experience in a couple of important areas when it comes to biomass collection with wood waste as well as agricultural waste," he said. "And so we wanted to weed through all of those different opportunities and kind of dial in on a couple that make some sense, that we believe are going to be maybe first-to-market."

He said the company hopes to begin manufacturing a market-ready cob harvester as soon as possible. "When it is ready to go to market, we'll cut it loose," Van Roekel said. "If it was ready today, I think we could sell it today."

Van Roekel expects demand for cob harvesters will begin to pick up within the next 15 months. He said Poet LLC's planned cellulosic ethanol production facility in Emmetsburg, Iowa, which will produce ethanol from corn cobs, will increase demand for a Vermeer cob harvester. According to Poet, cobs are currently valued at $30 to $60 per ton.

"But it's more than Poet," Van Roekel said. "It is Chippewa Valley (Ethanol Co.), it's whoever wants it. DuPont's talking about them. As soon as our product is ready, we will cut it loose. But we have to have something that's reliable and ready for market. We have a lot of work to do this fall."

Future cellulosic ethanol demand isn't the immediate driver for Vermeer to produce a cob harvester for the market, Van Roekel said. "If you look at cellulosic ethanol, that's a few years out," he said. "That shouldn't be our priority today-not that we're going to avoid it or ignore it, it's just later. So what can we jump on now that makes sense that has some real opportunity? We believe probably the gasification or solid-fuel burners or boilers, blending biomass with coal, those kinds of things are a reality today. That's why cobs kind of came to the top."

Van Roekel said word about Vermeer's cob harvester is getting around. "The phone is ringing pretty steady," he said. "Farmers are saying, �Hey, you can come try it on my place?' or �Can I buy one yet?' There are a lot of people who are excited, but we need a lot of people to harvest biomass before it's really a viable thing."

Another biomass collection implement already on the market is Vermeer's 605 Super M Cornstalk Special Baler. Van Roekel said Vermeer invented the large round baler back in 1971 "and so we have been baling corn stover and straw and all kinds of forages for 37 years," he said. "It's just really in the last few months that we've made a machine that can handle the variations in cornstalks better than the standard baler."

Van Roekel said the cornstalk baler has a powered windguard that helps the pickup attachment to evenly feed the crop residue into the baler. "Cornstalks are incredibly variable," he said. "When they are at good length and at the right moisture, they will bale as good as any forage crop will, any hay, but that's only maybe 10 percent of your fall and so there are a lot of times where you're faced with pretty challenging conditions. This new cornstalk baler is going to help us to maintain our efficiency and capacity and handle those variations better."