The market for corncobs for cellulosic ethanol production is still new. So, too, is the market for other types of biomass. But new research and new collection equipment are paving the way for the use of biomass in the commercial production of biofuels and bioenergy.

 

Vermeer Corporation

Vermeer Corporation, Pella, IA, has been developing biomass-harvesting equipment for the ethanol market from the outset. Over the last couple of years, corn growers have gone from asking basic questions about cob-collection equipment to asking detailed questions about how the market for cobs is developing, observes Jay Van Roekel, product manager for Vermeer.

Having approved Woodford Equipment as a new dealership in Emmetsburg, IA, this summer, Vermeer is in a good position to see what’s happening firsthand. Emmetsburg also is home to Project Liberty, POET’s 25-million-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol facility, which will be attached to its existing corn ethanol plant. POET expects the facility will begin producing commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol by the end of next year. The plant will use corncobs and corn residue as primary feedstocks.

Woodford Equipment has sold and serviced several 605 SM Cornstalk Special round balers for second-pass harvest, Van Roekel says.

Vermeer has been working with about 20 farms throughout the Corn Belt to field test its CCX770 cob-collection wagon, which is towed behind Class 7 or higher combines. “We’ve moved beyond prototypes,” says Van Roekel, adding that the system will collect 2/3 to 1 dry ton/acre in a cornfield that yields an average 200 bu. of grain. The amount of dry matter will correspond to the amount of grain yield harvested.

Cobs and other corn residue are caught from the back of the combine. “The best time to catch this material is while harvesting. Farmers tell us it doesn’t slow them down,” Van Roekel says.

Using this system, one would unload cobs every third grain dump (about every five to seven acres), Van Roekel says, adding that it takes about 90 sec. to offload cobs. With a Class 7 harvester and 12-row head, this would add about 30 min. to the job on a typical farm, he says.

 

Case IH

Case IH meanwhile has been evaluating the economics and harvest capacity of multiple cornstalk- and cob-collection methods and is pursuing second-pass baling technology using round balers. Sam Acker, director of the company’s harvest marketing, notes that after taking into account a grower’s capital investment and operating costs, Case IH determined this was the best economic solution. The company determined that round balers have more versatility, which could mean better resale value than either cob carts or square balers in the Corn Belt, Acker says. Growers must evaluate payback on the equipment. If the market for biomass weakens, this could be a problem for single-purpose equipment like a cob cart, Acker says.

Pulling a large square baler behind the combine produces a dense package of biomass, but the large square balers also represent a significant investment and require higher horsepower to operate, Acker says. He adds that round balers are generally about a third of the cost of a large square baler and it makes more economic sense to make a second pass with a round baler. The grain harvest is more productive without the combine towing a cart or baler, which was evident during the 2009 harvest, Acker says.

Case IH is introducing the RB564 Premium baler for 2011. It features a five-bar pickup with reinforced rubber-mounted tines (60 teeth, 82 in. tine to tine). It also features a roller windguard, external expeller roll, front belt guides, pickup flares and a duckbill trash baffle brush.

 

AGCO

As part of its biomass initiative, AGCO Corporation is testing harvest equipment in corn stover, switchgrass, miscanthus and energy cane throughout North America, says Todd Stucke, the company’s director of hay and harvesting.

AGCO debuted a combine and large square baler combination prototype last January and expanded the testing and validation during the 2010 harvest, with additional units operating in various crops. This included acres contracted with POET’s Project Liberty. The Challenger 680B (Class 8) combine and LSB34B (3- x 4-ft.) baler single-pass system is capable of packaging nearly 1 dry ton of biomass/acre into bales weighing between 1,000 and 1,400 lbs.

The bale can be easily collected, transported and stored on the farm or at the ethanol producer, Stucke says. Compared to second-pass baling, the combination unit collects less tonnage per acre, but it produces a cleaner bale without dirt or other debris, he adds. By taking a high percentage of the available cob and just the top part of the corn plant in the single-pass system, the material baled represents a lower amount of phosphorous and potash content, which would need to be restored through fertilization, Stucke says.

The 2010 test season was very dry, much different from the wet conditions the Emmetsburg area experienced in 2009. “The product coming out of the balers this year was very good,” Stucke says. “The bales stacked well, which was also very good for storage.” AGCO also tested a LSB34B in second-pass baling behind a Gleaner S7 prototype combine in the Emmetsburg area.

 

John Deere

John Deere, in collaboration with Hillco Technologies also is testing a prototype, using Hillco’s Cob Collection System and John Deere STS (models 9670, 9770 and 9870) combines. The system enables growers to use either a combine-pulled cart or a tractor-pulled cart, depending on the farming operation and field conditions.

Deere reports that this single-pass collection system “maximizes cob cleaning and collection capabilities with minimal impact on harvesting speed and efficiency.”                  

The Hillco system provides flexibility and efficiency in a cob- and biomass-harvesting system, says Scott Jensen, segment manager, John Deere. It features push-button control for turning on and off the collection of the cobs and allows quick, easy changeover between crops. It also  features variable cleaning technology and uses an easy-to-dump cart that can be towed by the combine or tractor.

 

Tuthill Drive Systems

Among other new biomass technology is the Glenvar Bale Direct System (BDS), manufactured by Tuthill Drive Systems, Brookston, IN. The system can be used with all leading brands of combines and large square balers.

 

Corncob economics

Corncobs could provide a future energy source, but a recent Purdue University study indicates that most farmers would need to receive about $100/dry ton from ethanol producers to add a cob-collection operation during harvest.

Wallace Tyner and graduate student Matthew Erickson at Purdue’s Department of Agricultural Economics examined the cost of cob-harvest equipment, the amount of time harvest was slowed by adding a cob-collection operation, the volume of cobs that could be collected per acre, and other factors.

In addition to the $100/ton price, the ag economists determined that farmers would be most likely to collect cobs if they made up at least 20% of the corn stover and if rental charges for cob-collection wagons were half the standard $28,000 seasonal rate.

The ag economists surveyed farmers who supplied cobs to a Minnesota ethanol company in 2009. This information was used to create a cob-harvesting operation for Purdue’s B-21 PC-LP Farm Plan Model, a computer program that determines the return on a specific farm operation from production and other data.

Anonymous data from 55 farms represented at Purdue’s 2009 Top Farmer Crop Workshop were used as the base for the computer simulation. These farms harvested a combined 100,264 acres of corn without cob collection in 2008. The computer program provided the farms the choice between corn harvest with and without cob collection and projected that none of the farms would collect cobs if wagon rental was $28,000 and cobs brought $40/ton. If farmers received $100/ton, however, B-21 projected 22 of the 55 farms would collect cobs.

The research suggested wagon rental rates often were the make-or-break factor in harvesting cobs. The typical $28,000 lease covers the harvest period, regardless how many acres are involved. “If rental was reduced to $14,000, cob harvest became much more attractive,” Erickson says.

The Purdue study, funded by the Indiana Corn Marketing Council, also indicated:

Farms with 2,000 or more corn acres were better able to offset cob-collection costs than smaller farms because of reduced unit costs.

If paid $100/ton for cobs, farmers likely would collect 96% more cobs under the most favorable operating conditions and costs than the least favorable operating conditions and costs.

Break-even prices for cobs differ significantly from farm to farm, depending on corn yield, farm size and production practices.

Government subsidies might be necessary to encourage more farmers to collect cobs if the public decides cellulosic biofuels are an important energy alternative.

The study findings are published in The Economics of Harvesting Corn Cobs for Energy, available for free download at the Purdue University Web site.

Vermeer’s Van Roekel points out that because the corncob and corn residue market is still developing, the price of equipment, efficiency of harvest and the value of a ton of biomass will change yearly. The corn ethanol industry has made significant technological improvements over the last five years, he says, adding, “OEMs, renewable energy facilities, universities and farms are all developing better ways to utilize biomass sustainably.”