Cash for cobs

A new federal program will pay farmers to harvest, store and deliver crop residue and other biomass for renewable power.

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program, or BCAP (pronounced BE-cap), offers dollar-for-dollar matching payments of up to $45 per dry ton to producers who supply biofuel to facilities that generate heat, electricity or ethanol from crop residue or certain other plant materials.

The program, authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill, is meant to encourage biofuel development, according to the USDA, which is running the program through the Farm Service Agency.

In west-central Minnesota, BCAP incentives will help the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. shift from natural gas to biomass power, says Chad Friese, commodity manager and biomass delivery coordinator for the 48 million-gallon ethanol plant in Benson.

In 2008, CVEC began operating a flexible fuel biomass gasifier designed by Frontline BioEnergy of Ames, Iowa. Wood chips now fuel CVEC’s gasifier, but in time, it will run primarily on corncobs, Friese says, with up to 70% of the energy coming from that fuel source. Reaching that goal will require more than 100,000 acres of cobs a year.

In 2008, the ethanol maker bought about 3,200 acres of corncobs to test-burn in its newly commissioned gasifier. The first year, CVEC took on the role of custom combiner, Friese says, handling cob harvest and transportation.

In 2009, with commercial cob harvesting equipment available for lease in Minnesota, farmers managed collection and delivery themselves. CVEC planned to buy about 14,000 acres of corncobs last fall, which will supply 10% of the plant’s energy needs.

CVEC bid $45 per wet ton (20% moisture) for 2009 cobs — a value dictated by prices for natural gas, the competing fuel, Friese says. That’s enough to cover farmers’ expenses for harvest and delivery, he estimates.

Farmers who supply 2009 cobs to CVEC are also eligible for a BCAP matching payment of up to $45 per dry ton, says Tom Anderson, director of the Swift County Farm Service Agency. Biomass suppliers can receive the payments for two years. Farmers must apply for the BCAP matching payment at their local FSA office before delivering cobs to the plant. Biomass crop assistance is not affected by other federal farm program payments, Anderson says.

CVEC is one of the first

Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. is one of the first Minnesota biomass-powered plants to be accepted into BCAP. And it’s one of just a few state facilities that converts crop residues to energy, Anderson adds.

Most Minnesota biomass power plants use waste wood, which is also eligible for incentive payments.

FSA expects to disburse about $400,000 to Benson-area farmers who have agreed to furnish cobs to CVEC this season, Anderson says. At harvesttime, Minnesota’s BCAP fund allocation was not yet known, he says, “but it sounds like there will be plenty of funding available. It’s an exciting program.”

For more information about BCAP, contact your local FSA office or go to www.fsa.usda.gov.


Farmers get handle on first cob harvest

Harvest delays are a concern, says Riley Maanum, research and project manager for the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. They were a challenge for farmers who tried harvesting corncobs for the first time.

“When you have a harvest season like the last one, growers don’t want to do anything that will slow them down. Getting the grain off the field is the main thing,” he says.

The Vermeer cob harvester doesn’t interfere with unloading grain on the go, says Jay Van Roekel, Vermeer product manager.

It takes about 90 seconds to dump the cobs. Benson farmer and custom harvester Tim Foslien pulls back into the cornfield, and the loaded tender wagon lumbers down the road to a headland, where the cobs will be stored in open piles. Over the winter, the cobs will be trucked to the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. in Benson, about 10 miles southeast, where they will be ground, mixed with wood chips, and gasified.

Late in the afternoon, Foslien needs to head over to a nearby soybean field. It takes about 10 minutes to disconnect the cob collector, making it convenient to switch between crops during harvest. “You’re not tying up the combine,” Van Roekel points out. “You just pull the hitch pin, unplug the wire harness and re-engage the combine chopping device.”

Key Points

• Incentive payments available for supplying crop residue to biomass power plants.

• Biomass Crop Assistance Program aims to encourage biomass energy development.

• The Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. in Benson is gasifying corncobs.

Nailing down costs

Farmers are still getting a handle on what it costs to harvest, store and deliver corncobs. An acre of corn produces about 1,000 dry pounds of cobs, according to the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center’s 2008 research.That year, it cost roughly $33 per acre to harvest and deliver cobs, says Mike Reese, WCROC renewable energy director. Costs are likely to drop as equipment efficiency improves and growers get more experience handling cobs, Reese says, so more economic evaluation is needed.

Foslien, who has been custom harvesting for 33 years, figures he’ll need to charge at least $20 per acre to collect cobs. In addition to the equipment lease, his cob-harvesting expenses include an extra tender wagon and man, plus an extra 2.5 gallons of diesel fuel per hour to operate the cob separator.

Handling crop residue presents major logistical challenges for farmers, Reese says. Still, there is keen interest in cobs’ potential. He says cobs could be “a good way for farmers to increase the bottom line and have another product to sell. It’s a matter of determining if the time and capital investment are worthwhile.”

Morrison is a writer from Morris.

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REST IN HEAPS: Corncobs can be safely stored outdoors in open piles without spoiling, according to recent University of Minnesota research.

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DUMPING COBS: The Vermeer CCX770 cob harvester, introduced last fall, is a wagon-style unit towed by the combine so grain and cobs can be collected in one pass. It holds about 7,000 pounds of cobs and unloads in about 90 seconds.

This article published in the February, 2010 edition of THE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.