The next big technologies in American agriculture might just be found in dedicated energy crops and advanced bale-handling equipment.

This prediction is not being made by a seed company executive or an equipment manufacturer, but  by Jeremy Javers, principal scientist at ICM, Colwich, KS. ICM is one of the ethanol industry’s largest process design and construction companies.

Over the past several years, ICM has planted plots to switchgrass and energy sorghum. Farmers and cellulosic ethanol producers will want to see the differences between varieties, particularly when it comes to yield and overwintering ability, Javers says. ICM is interested in the differences among varieties so that it can design processes to minimize the effect of feedstock differences on ethanol yield.

“Biomass will become more similar to the row-crop industry,” Javers says. “As demand for it increases, the more money we’ll see invested in variety development.” He believes that energy crops are well suited to genetic modification to increase yields. “We don’t know yet the upper yield limit for switchgrass,” he says. “We’ll see a lot of things that will surprise us.”

Producing feedstocks for ethanol

ICM has been working with farmers in the St. Joseph, MO, area, growing both switchgrass and energy sorghum. “We’ve seen switchgrass produce 5 tons/acre in the first year of the stand,” Javers says. And last year, farmers were able to harvest the crop well into December, running a baler immediately behind a windrower.

By selecting the best seed varieties with currently available technology, farmers can expect to harvest between 6 and 10 tons of switchgrass/acre in an average year. In more northerly regions, farmers are growing varieties like Blackwell, Trailblazer and Sunburst. Ceres also has developed an improved switchgrass variety, EG 1102, that is well suited to the Midwest and developed specifically for bioenergy.

Meanwhile, energy sorghum can yield as much as 15 dry tons/acre in some years. Unlike switchgrass, energy sorghum is an annual. “It’s important to have good experience with both annual and perennial crops,” Javers says.

For farmers interested in the future potential for producing feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol, an annual crop like energy sorghum may be more desirable at first, since most farmers are accustomed to producing annual crops.

Energy sorghum differs from standard forage sorghum because of its higher yield potential, Javers says, adding that some energy sorghum can produce as much as 15 tons/acre. However, it can be difficult to harvest due to its thick stalks and higher moisture levels.

A farmer would probably want an aggressive mower-conditioner because energy sorghum bales could have as much as 25% moisture. Because energy sorghum has higher levels of sucrose, there is also more potential for bacterial growth in the bales and compositional changes during storage.

Growers unaccustomed to growing energy crops will need agronomic help. ICM has been working with agronomists at CropQuest, an agronomic consulting service based in Dodge City, KS. The company has a team of agronomists working throughout the High Plains.

“CropQuest has been involved in production plots and understands how to best manage switchgrass — when and how deep to plant, fertilizer requirements, what to expect in the first year of a perennial stand, and so on,” Javers says.

“Ceres also provides a lot of agronomic information,” he says. Based in Thousand Oaks, CA, Ceres is a developer of energy crops (under the Blade Energy brand), such as high biomass sorghum, sweet sorghum, switchgrass and miscanthus, and has held field days in the High Plains region.

Harvest, handling equipment

Equipment used in the production of switchgrass includes drills for planting and windrowers and standard baling equipment for harvest. “New equipment will allow the industry to mature,” Javers says, adding that baling technologies are advancing. “AGCO, for example, has developed high-density balers that allow farmers to load trucks more efficiently.”

Both farmers and ethanol producers want to see continued reductions in the cost of harvesting and delivering cellulosic feedstocks. One of the more time-consuming tasks confronting farmers has been loading feedstock onto trucks. Javers says Stinger, Haven, KS, has addressed this issue with a quick-loading system. It features hydraulics that pinch the bales and then release them onto the truck trailer.

New equipment advances will not be inexpensive, so there will be new opportunities for custom harvesters as the cellulosic ethanol industry evolves, Javers says. The cellulosic ethanol industry will likely see farmers using currently available hay-handling equipment and then moving toward more specialized equipment as demand and volumes for cellulosic ethanol feedstocks increase.

Once the industry takes off, and farmers put evolving genetics and equipment together, producing energy crops will look more like conventional row-crop management, Javers says. He also expects most dedicated energy crops to be under contract production at the beginning of this industry.

Markets for biomass currently include those for animal feed and care and, to a smaller degree, the solid fuel market. The USDA’s weekly National Biomass Energy Report, at www.marketnews.usda.gov, features prices being paid for biomass. Biomass currently fetches $35 to $75/ton.

As demand increases, ethanol producers will likely pay more for biomass, Javers says. That’s why companies like ICM are working to understand more about the differences among feedstocks and handling equipment, and designing processes to optimize efficiency.