Agronomic Efficiencies and Management

Once the dedicated energy crop has been chosen and established, the supply chain must have a robust agricultural infrastructure to support it. The selection of dedicated energy crop species and mix will impact the agricultural infrastructure required to economically and sustainably operate the supply chain. Some energy crops require little to no modification of existing planters, harvesting equipment, and transport systems, while others will require improved or new technologies to improve the economics of the supply system. Crops that are planted using rhizomes or other rooted stock matter are a good example of this. Traditional planting of crops like miscanthus have required significant labor and time.

Recent advancements, however, have shown automated planters not only reduced the cost of establishment but in many cases actually improve establishment success rate. Many herbaceous crops can be harvested with existing hay and forage equipment that is generally available throughout most agricultural communities. However, some crops may require more specialized and less common harvesting equipment. One example of this is sweet sorghum, which requires cane-type harvesters.

Biomass consumers will require their feedstocks to meet certain specifications, including cost, moisture, delivered form, and particle size. The consistency in delivered feedstock will be critical, not only to the operation of the conversion facility, but also to the cost of the feedstock. For example, facilities will not be designed to allow farmers to deliver different bale sizes to a singular processing line. Biomass preprocessing equipment will likely be designed for specific feedstocks and to prepare the required delivery format. Variation from that format could cause a disruption in the supply chain.

In this new industry, the first few commercial scale cellulosic-based facilities will require tightly managed and highly efficient supply chains to minimize feedstock costs. In most cases, it is envisioned that these supply chains will be managed by the facility itself, an independent third-party operator, or producers, in the form of cooperatives. Commercial scale facilities will likely require significant investment in agricultural equipment that would make it difficult for individual producers to participate in the initial phases. Facilities that require round bale package formats may be more suitable to smaller producers as the capital cost of equipment is relatively small and similar to their current forage management operations. Facilities requiring a large square bale format or a chopped form from a forage harvester would probably prevent smaller producers from operating on their own, as the capital cost for equipment could be anywhere from three to ten times higher than that for conventional round bales. In these scenarios, third-party custom operators or operators employed by the conversion facility itself would be required to meet all required feedstock specifications. Additionally, not all land recruited for bioenergy crop production will be actively farmed or have owners that have the capabilities to conduct the operations for energy crop production and, therefore, custom operators will be required in those scenarios.

In commercialized supply chains, it is likely that some energy crop production will be carried out by farmers while some will be carried out by custom operators. Each has its benefits. Individual farmers tend to have more focus on their particular production acres, leading to more timely attention to production issues. Working with many individual farmers also has its challenges. Maintaining consistency, particularly in harvest, of crop conditions and packaging is made increasingly difficult with more operators and different pieces of equipment. Custom operations, however, create certain levels of efficiencies that are required to reduce cost in feedstock production. They also provide consistency in operations across a broad portion of the land being used to produce energy crops. Fewer machinery operators can lead to improved ability to train and reduce variation between operations. The consistency in quality and delivery package is of utmost importance to end users. A commercial scale biomass supply chain must be designed to minimize variation so that processing of biomass feedstock can be optimized. Additionally, landowners who have no interest in performing management tasks on their own land will also require custom operations.

Commercial scale energy crop systems must be able to deliver consistent quality. Consistency in delivery format and condition is critical, especially for first-generation commercial operations. Biomass conversion facilities will require as little variability as possible, whether that be in the feedstocks’ form of packaging or composition characteris­tics of the incoming feedstock.

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